Everywhere and nowhere
I’m not that old. Some would even say young. Just turned 33. And yet I was a junior in college when I sent my first email. Around that time, a close friend explained that it was possible to see images (not just text!) on a computer screen. Mind-blowing. At the time (1998), I wrote all my papers on the 9 inch black and white screen provided by my trusty Mac Classic; which (to my knowledge) had no online capability. I trekked to the computer science building on campus to send my sporadic emails using this new-fangled thing called the Internet.
There was a sense of lightness and adventure about the whole endeavor. It was like discovering a vast network of mazes under your house. Where would they lead? The times they were a-changin’ and flying cars were clearly right around the corner.
Cut to 10 years later, and that network of mazes turns out to be planet-sized. Unanswered emails mount up daily, we carry miniature computers in our pockets, surf the net at stoplights and somehow that lightness and adventure has dissipated. Now, I feel an actual physical weight when I open my email and see the strings of messages demanding reply. I’ll spend an entire afternoon cleaning out my inbox, like it’s my garage. But unlike the garage, the work requires that my body remain stagnant, while my mind flits through hundreds (thousands?) of screen images: storing, categorizing, and destroying things that exist only in a virtual reality.
The Internet has the power to give me a job or a date; to be my TV, my movie theatre, my newspaper, my telephone, my shopping mall, my stereo, my garage sale… my life. Its existence is a foregone conclusion like telephones or cars. We can barely (if at all) imagine our lives without it. Yet unlike telephones or cars, we can’t touch it, clean it, throw it, break it, or lose it. It’s just there. Always.
On the one hand, it is helpful (and life-giving) to engage this tool (there’s beauty and inspiration to be found online). But the need to return with our hands in the soil, to hold and touch the things we create becomes increasingly vital. Not simply to remain sane. But to remain human.
In the process of working on this essay, my wireless went down and I nearly tore my hair out. Do I need an Internet connection in order to work? Surely not always. I could simply sit and think and put words on a page. Isn’t that what writing is? Not today. Not for me. I check email, I google my name, I watch videos, I send emails, I purchase music, I read (or rather, scan) articles, I check email. I check email again. And then I check to see if anyone called or texted me.
In his affecting piece for The Atlantic (Is Google Making Us Stupid?), Nicholas Carr writes,
“…what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
While being interviewed for On The Media, the writer John Lorinc put it this way:
“When you’re working online, there is this craving for information. It’s difficult to know when to stop. And you can quickly come to the conclusion that you can go on link by link by link ad infinitum. You’re always waiting to get closest to some ideal of a perfect state of information.”
The question is not: Is the Internet turning us into serial-taskers more likely to think a little about a lot of things than deeply about any one thing? But instead: How can we counter-culturally offset the fact that the Internet is turning us into serial-taskers more likely to think a little about a lot of things than deeply about any one thing?
Brooke Gladstone recently interviewed the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose scientific predictions about technology are esteemed by a range of devotees. Kurzweil predicts that within 25 years, computers will be the size of blood cells and millions of “nanobots” will be implanted into our brains, putting our existence on-line and providing, “full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system.” Kurzweil expects that by the 2030s, “We’ll have augmented real reality. So if you look at somebody in real reality there’ll be little popups telling you information about that person, and so on.”
Real reality isn’t enough. We need to enhance our experience. We need to live inside our computers (and have our computers live inside us). I recently had a conversation about Kurzweil with my brother (Calvin, a 30-year old painter living in Brooklyn). Calvin got angry, “Real reality isn’t going to be good enough? Steroids make us stronger – should we all be taking steroids? The whole reason art is powerful is because it relates to reality, not because it moves us further away from it. There would be no reason for art.”
There would be no reason for getting out of bed. The most recent Pixar opus, WALL-E, depicts a vision of our world some time in the 21st century. Provided with every possible luxury on a Carnival Cruise-esque space ship, humans travel in mobile reclining chairs, suck meals through a straw, and interact with the world exclusively through screens perpetually hovering inches from their faces. The obvious conclusion is that we’re not too far from this reality. It’s possible to spend your day relating more with screens than with people.
As Christians, we are a people of the text. We base our lives around ancient writings and millennia of meditative reflections on these writings. But the mechanics of our daily lives rely on something that is immediate, transient, and excels at distributing vast stores of surface level information. In an era of the screen, how do we remain people of the book?
In this past Sunday’s sermon, Bill pointedly walked us through both the Old and New Testament by way of showing the theme of gardens throughout the Bible. Life begins and ends with a garden, God is the original gardener, and as Christians, we are resurrected gardeners – called to appreciate and foster life, fruitfulness, and beauty.
Mind you, I spend a lot of time on my computer, skimming past seas of information in (literally) the blink of an eye. I am much more a jet skier than a scuba diver. And I don’t like it. Sure, jet skiing is fun. Zipping along with the wind in your hair offers instant exhilaration without much demand – like riding a roller coaster. But scuba diving. That requires preparation, training, and care. And the rewards of the experience reflect that. I could spend weeks researching the life of Dostoyevsky online and would probably wind up with a migraine headache and a desire to take a long vacation. Needless to say, the effect of sitting down and reading The Brothers Karamazov, holding the pages of the heavy book in my hands, is more frightening, more consuming and more rewarding.
It’s a daily reminder, a discipline in fact, to physically engage with the world, to hold things, to make things, to put my hands in the soil. As the world becomes more virtual, the need to immerse ourselves in the breadth and depth of humanity becomes more and more vital.
great thoughts, toddy. i’ve felt the shift in ability to concentrate and contemplate, both in myself and in the students i work with. ironically, i read your post on my iphone in-between checking the days weather forecast and answering an email. i’m going to do my best to think deeply about what you wrote, because i think your observations are important. thanks for writing!
I just scanned this post since I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read it. I have 19 other tabs open with four videos playing in synchronicity (on of them is actually “Synchronicity”, by The Police) OMG it is SOOOO GUUD!
I disagree that the internet reality is diminishing my capacity for critical thought and concentration…what were we talking about?