In a ‘State of Distraction’: Oh, Internet. You’re bad for me but I just can’t quit you

Can you imagine life without the web? If not, pay a visit to Slate and read the last four-months’ worth of articles by writer/illustrator James Sturm, who, like the CEO of BP, wanted his life back, and who, unlike the CEO of BP, had a right to feel so inclined. With the support of his wife and editor and I’m sure many other people, including one friend who changed all the passwords on his computers so he couldn’t give into the temptation to cheat, Sturm systematically, methodically unplugged.

Gadzoinks! He what??? He quit the what?! I was awed and stupefied. But, later, when I came across a story about Internet use and attention span, I heard the familiar if faint “pssst” whispered into my ear by the universe.

I’d been procrastinating several projects by scanning the day’s headlines with one eye and skimming the shortest posts in my Google Reader with the other, saving the longer ones (those that required scrolling and didn’t have pictures) for later when I’d have more time—which, I’ll be honest, is so 2004. And then, there it was, the link to a piece that I both clicked on and read. As in, the whole thing, from beginning to end.

I’d tell you the headline now and the name of the author, but it’s been bumped off the main page of the site on which I’m pretty sure I’d read it, and since I didn’t bookmark the link, it’s little more than a shortcut removed from the dock of my mind, a momentary cartoony dust ball of pouf! Repeated searches with every related keyword imaginable have been fruitless—if by “fruitless” one means “used up 45 minutes of valuable time that could have been better spent doing 17 other things at once,” none of them particularly well.

The fact that the article was there and now it is not, and that it had been buried in the cyber heap of constantly changing, need-to-know headlines, highlights the point of the article itself, which was, if I remember correctly, this: The Internet is dumbing us down. Not only do we opt for the take-away message of a newsy blip versus a whole concept, but we have also nurtured an inability to focus for a period of time long enough to get past a teaser. The upshot is that we know a teensy little smidgen about every single topic. Go on: Ask me what I know about welding.

In his July 2008 Atlantic piece (which he’s since expanded into the aptly named book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains), Nicholas Carr asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” To which I say—with nothing more than my verifiable and repeatable inability focus on a single New Yorker article from start to finish without taking headline- and e-mail-checking breaks as evidence—yes, yes it is.

“I’d sit down with a book, or a long article,” Carr said in a recent NPR interview, when asked what prompted him to write the book. “And after a couple of pages, my brain wanted to do what it does when I’m online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.” And here I thought I was the only one.

It’s very nearly a form of ADHD, something about which the unknown author of the non-existent piece to which I referred earlier, mentioned. Indeed, his list of warning signs included things like failing to pay close attention to details, an inability to sustain and complete tasks, reluctance to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort, a lack of follow-through, being easily distracted, procrastinating, forgetfulness—. Where was I going with this again? Oh, yeah! The petrifaction of our brains.

Carr shoves the knife in even further by pointing out how the human brain is adaptable and that our “chronic state of distraction” leads to a decrease in creativity, an inability to engage in complex thinking and a lack of introspective, contemplative thought. In other words, too much Internet is turning us all into Sarah Palin. It’s a horrific thought, but I take solace that at least I don’t look like a tranny.

Sure, I can multi-task with the best of them. But I’m eerily cognizant, as I meander the web for information, that there is no positive benefit to my existence in knowing that Belinda Carlisle had a 30-year coke habit, that Tipper and Al didn’t have affairs, that World Cup refs can outrun the players (yeah, right) and that a baseball coach lost his World Series ring while drunk.

I experience no spiritual growth by knowing that housewives upgrading their wedding rings for bigger, shinier models and that models of the super kind committing suicide are the latest trends. And I can’t tell you how much I’d like to un-see the photos of the matador impaled through his throat and mouth last month by an 1,100-pound bull. I tried not to look, but in my support for the bull, I couldn’t resist. I’m pretty sure lack of self-control should have ranked high on that symptoms list.

The jobs report for May was dismal; oil may gush ’til Christmas and—wait! Rue McLanahan died? And Dennis Hopper, too? I gotta share / mourn / celebrate that on Facebook! I mean, besides trying to be the first person to let everyone know that Michael Jackson died, what, exactly is the currency in knowing that Kate Hudson got a new rack or that six New Jersey women recently got butt implants made of caulking and cement (oops)? Answer: There isn’t any.

It’s all about self-monitoring, and I need to do more of it, starting last Friday. A part of me is really impressed with Sturm’s ability to go cold turkey and I’m tempted to try it. But I’m not that strong. I’m just going to dip my toe in, sign off for the weekend and see how goes the cold sweats. Guaranteed, I’m not changing any of my passwords.

(As published on 6/08/10 in San Diego CityBeat.)

4 Responses to In a ‘State of Distraction’: Oh, Internet. You’re bad for me but I just can’t quit you

  • Kristen says:

    I know I need to do this. By the conviction I feel . . . but also by the quiet panic that takes over when I even THINK about unplugging for a season. Or a day.

    Though I’m quite sure I would be a better mother/wife/friend/everything if I did.

  • Usually, summers are my plugged-in time. Since I am working a regular job now, and no longer teaching, I don’t have summers off anymore. I’m not really distracted by the internet. Much. I can get lost on a Wikipedia search, though…

  • ‘Tis true. All of it. I have been turning the computer OFF when I settle down to read a book or the like. It helps.

  • Average Jane says:

    I unplugged for four days over the Memorial Day weekend and got SO much accomplished! I’m taking a week of vacation soon and I’m planning on severely limiting my online time then as well. It just feels like the healthy thing to do.

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