Without the Internet, I imagine I would’ve ended up with a nice, long career writing and editing for newspapers in small Kansas towns. This was the career track I was on, early in the Digital Era, before the Internet’s rise finally started to displace everything in its path. This would’ve been good.
Because of the Internet, I write regularly today for national outlets like Macworld and Vice.com — and because of the Internet, I got to leave my Kansas roots for awhile and live nearly a decade on the East Coast. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything — and it has also been good, but in a very different way.
The Internet opens the world to me. The Internet floods me with too much information. The Internet forces me to be in contact with people from my past whom I’d sometimes like to shed. The Internet lets those people offer me support when times are rough. The Internet is too much for our minds and not enough for our souls.
In other words, the Internet is like any other human creation: It can be used for good. Or it can be abused to our detriment.
This may seem obvious, but it’s also worth asserting from time to time. There are lots of smart, bookish people who sometimes seem to regard the Internet as a malevolent force even as they surrender to its warm embrace. Take Ross Douthat’s column today, entitled “Resist the Internet”:
The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you (unless you’re hit by a distracted driver) or leave you ravaged and destitute. But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.
Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
Actually, I sympathize. Now and again, I find myself in a social media spiral, shifting my attention from Twitter to Facebook and back again for what can, ultimately, turn out to be hours. For awhile, I got to a point where it was hard to read books anymore, and book-reading is kind of core to my self-identity. This isn’t healthy behavior, I know, and there have been times I’ve made an (overly dramatic) addict’s vow to go cold turkey and never use Twitter again.
I always come back. Some of that is surely addiction; some of it is utilitarian — I’m a journalist, and a lot of news and conversation break in real time on Twitter. It’s difficult to lock myself away from that entirely.
Douthat’s solution to all this is to scour the culture: No computers in elementary schools, no Facebook until 16, that sort of thing. “Our devices we shall always have with us,” he writes, “but we can choose the terms.”
Let me suggest three practical ways to set the terms, for your adult self, somewhat differently.
Create your own obstacles. There’s a Safari extension, WasteNoTime, that lets you limit the number of hours a day you see certain website; you can also choose to block them outright for an hour or so if you’re having trouble getting stuff done. It’s also available for Chrome.
What about your smartphone? My iPhone comes with the ability to activate restrictions: Settings > General > Enable restrictions > Websites > Limit Adult Content. The idea is to keep kinky stuff off your phone. You can also use it to choose to stay away from Twitter and Facebook forever.
Give it away, give it away now: Sometimes, when we’re in a restaurant, I hand my wife my phone so I don’t spend the meal staring at it instead of making conversation with her.
This is one of the actions I take to try and stay married.
Digital sabbath: Every now and again, I take 24 hours to disengage. I shut of all my devices and spend a day without them. Any reading I do takes place with actual printed books, newspapers, and magazines; I spend more time inhabiting the physical world.
These days are almost always lovely; my brain always seems to slow down and “realtime” becomes, well, real time. Right now, these sabbaths are conducted ad hoc; it probably wouldn’t hurt to make them a regular occurrence.
I still haven’t found the right balance. There are probably fewer thoughts that need to be expressed by me to the world. But I’m trending in the right direction, and it’s one that lets me participate in modern life without being controlled by it it. The battle, I suspect, is never-ending.
How do find balance in the digital world?