Friday, April 1, 2005

The benefits of technology?

[Dear Anonymous Discourse Partner,

Please know that I want you to feel "affirmed" by me, the "Other," to point out any spelling, grammar or logical errors in this little act of sharing. I also affirm your self-disclosure as someone above correcting, as someone self-affirmed in just accepting your life waves as they reach you. In either life path, consider me thankfully vulnerbale.][1]

The common claim is that having the Internet helps us do things faster and more efficiently. I'm not so sure. Obviously, I agree the Internet helps many areas of commerce and administration be better organized. (Of course, since I'm basically a nincompoop about commerce and administration, how would I know either way?) My skepticism has more to do with the everyday life of everyday people. I am seriously considering not having Internet at home next year, whether I’m in Taiwan or the Philippines or the USA or wherever.

My first impulse against this thought was that I would be unable to do things so efficiently and that I might miss important deadlines, especially being overseas. My second reservation was that having no Internet would reduce my contact with my family and friends.

But then I realized one problem with the Internet is that it gives us a warped sense of time. A second problem is that while the Internet does allow us to do particular things more directly or quickly (e.g., paying bills, buying books, making travel arrangements, etc.), it actually may hamstring us into hyperactively trying to do too much.

I think of my warped sense of time in a digital age. For one thing, doing so much in one interface -- a computer -- skews my sense of how many activities I actually do over the course of a day or a week. At some point, after so many years staring through a screen into a virtual world, everything becomes a blur. All time becomes computer time and the only really memorable times, as conceived in distinct moments and occurrences, are the non-computer times. When I draft a document in Microsoft Word and send it via email, I am, in the capacity of my social and technological self, doing two things. (Scanning the news while doing this may bump me up to three tasks at once.) But as far as my biological and pre-computer-brain-self is concerned, I have done only one thing: sit at a compute and move my hands a lot. "What have I been doing this whole time?" we sometimes ask ourselves, realizing how late it's gotten after only a "few minutes" of "checking email" or "scanning news" or "catching up on" our favorite blogs.

A corollary of this warped compression of action and duration is how immediate the transfer of information is. I myself often assume the recipient of an email has gotten, or is getting, my message even as I type. Why? What a bizarre assumption. My problem is that I have an unconscious desire to get my message out as soon as possible so that the ball is in my communicant’s court. This sense of communication “debt” is only heightened by my modern, habituated awareness that once I send the email, the ball really will be in the other person’s court. Without the all too human delays of the postal service and the other person checking their mail, I develop a hyperactive sense of accomplishment for received, replied to, sent and definitely delivered a communiqué in the shortest amount of time as is technologically possible.

And now we see the second potential snare of the Internet: hyperactivity. It's more popularly called multitasking, and is meant to be a modern version of the old business of "getting things done." But it's not so much getting things done as perpetually discovering new things to get done. The Internet is a self-perpetuating need, and "using" it is very often like using a shovel to dig a whole in the sand near the tide line. We make a divot (get our things done), but then meet a wave of new links or pop-up windows which immediately fill in -- or at least tempt us to fill -- our little hole of finished business with more things to "check out." The efficiency and, shall we say, manifestness of the Internet is actually what makes it so often so unnavigable. "I just wanted to sit down and type this one email, but now look -- it's been half an hour!"

Imagine how bizarre such a complaint would seem to previous generations. How often were people fifty years ago lured away by a theological discussion on the way to the post office? How often did a person thirty years ago regain their sense and find themselves immersed into an encyclopedia volume hours after starting on their way to the check-out line? We moderns, we Internet users, must constantly thread our way between the Charybdis of wandering through a maze of increasingly unrelated links and the Scylla of losing ourselves in a pit of endlessly helpful explanations and considerations. You may end up playing “Fling the Cow” when you began paying a credit bill. Or you may end up reading the entire Wikipedia entry on credit and economics when you began paying a credit card bill. Either way, somewhere along the long blue line, you got sucked into the hyperactivity of multitasking.

For many people I’m sure the hyperactivity of the Internet is nothing but a boon. “People are having a great time learning and exploring the world, and you are complaining? How ignorant! We should be so grateful to have so much information at our fingertips. The Internet is a real dream-come-true for the mass proliferation of knowledge, and you, you Luddite, need to accept that fact.” In many ways, these imaginary zealous “Internetarati”[2] are right: the availability of information for so many people is a great thing.

But, with all due respect and gratefulness, it’s hardly an unalloyed blessing, as I’ve argued in an earlier essay. How many crank “experts” and recycled misquotes do we need to put our students, and ourselves, through before we realize the Internet is an intellectual game of roulette? The problem of the Netarati is that they treat information per se as a positive good, regardless of its value or reliability. Of course, I can’t blame them too severely, since they are suffering from a larger problem in all of Western culture: the confusion of the proliferation of information with the advancement of education. I’m all for the (supposedly) more democratic proliferation of information – as long as education is carefully distinguished from verbiage, just as knowledge is rightly distinguished from wisdom.

Aside from the misguided philosophical and pedagogical defenses given for the Internet-as-a-better-way-of-life outlook, my most fundamental concern is (not surprisingly) its spiritual effect on humanity. Aside from the problem of feeding people a lot of misinformation and spin in the name of “free trade of ideas,” allowing people to read whatever they want whenever they want undermines one of the most important spiritual virtues, to wit, self control.

Recall the man fifty years ago walking to the post office. He may have been able to dialogue – cough, bicker about, cough – the fine points of Calvinism and tort law on his way there, but, then again, that’s exactly the point. He didn’t have the option of leaping from link to link. Hence, he didn’t have anything but the humility of self-control which had to suffice to get him there and back before the mail went out that day. We on the other hand are, strangely, congratulated for wasting our time doing two simple tasks while we expanded our horizons googling Jeeves.

The problem is not that the Internet presents us with more temptations for distraction – though of course it does that. The problem is that society is increasingly becoming integrated with this vast network of endlessly linked distractions. This development is a spiritual ill precisely because it cuts at the root of self-control, which in turn, aims to sever our trust in divine providence.

One day (it may or not be true), St. Francis of Assisi was weeding a garden when a younger monk approached him with a question. “Dear Brother Francis,” he asked, “what would you do if you knew the Lord were returning tomorrow and the world was ending?” St. Francis looked up from the patch of weeds beneath him and said, “I would finish weeding the garden.” This is one of the reasons St. Francis is a saint: he had an apparently inexhaustible trust in the work of divine providence. He had such confidence in providence that he knew even weeding a monastery garden on the eve of the Parousia had its proper place in the divine plan. His failure to fulfill his role in that plan, whether by weeding or by rebuilding God’s Church, would have been primarily a failure of trust in Providence and, secondarily, a failure of self-control. The two virtues – faith and self-control – go hand in hand. The Internet, however, intrudes as a spiritual ill precisely by insisting, like a charming, whispering serpent, that more important things are waiting to be “done” just beyond the next link.

And here am I again at my own mental list of pros and cons for having the Internet next year. Does the Internet help me work and live more efficiently? Yes, but only because I *must* work and live more efficiently. While the Internet does allow me to find things for lesson planning, it also lets me savor an inner “net lag.” I know I can dally precisely because I know I can work faster once I do stop dallying!

Likewise, while the Internet does allow me to communicate more easily with my family and friends, it also lets me be as leisurely in most replies as an old-fashioned lord answering a serf’s latest entreaty. I know as soon as I get an email that I have literally just gotten that email. As a result, I know I can give it a little time to breathe. By contrast, if I received a traditional letter, I would feel obliged to reply more promptly. A letter is more demanding in a sense first because it shows the writer was willing to put more into communicating with you – and thus perhaps more into your friendship – than shooting off an email. I’m sure many companies recognize this deficiency in the Internet, since they still insist on a land address. No matter how wired it may be otherwise, sending a customer snail mail inquiry or reminder is simply more impressive and motivating than yet one more email.

Another reason handwritten letters encourage more prompt replies is that we do not have the comfort of knowing we just heard from someone. An urgent request via email is rarely is ever treated as truly urgent. Why? Because only the rarest urgent business literally can’t wait. Knowing this, we wait. A letter, on the other hand, has already burned away its wait period while it was in the mail. Knowing this, we wait a little less. With a letter, we realize it has been in transit for some time, and that therefore its content is already dated. Any deadlines it contains are already that much closer. The delay of sending a handwritten reply on intensifies the need for us to reply quickly. Forget the fact that writing and mailing a letter promptly require we use more self-control to sit down and assemble the parcel: no auto-reply, no copy and paste, no choice but to write. The simpler reality is that letters help us be more self-controlled: no links, no pop-ups, no distracting bells and whistles.

So, all in all, I feel pretty confident I shouldn’t have the Internet next year at home. Mastery of offline procrastination is enough for me.

[1] Ahh don't know, I just felt like being weird.

[2] Now that’s a word I’d be hogtied and painted pink for if I didn’t coin it!

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