The water’s fine, but maybe don’t come in

April 18, 2011


Is the Internet turning us into hopeless narcissists, spurring us on to produce a constant flow of image-burnishing tidbits but all the while sapping our ability to create anything meaningful?

No, I haven’t just had a near-death experience, or been tagged by a total stranger in a picture I didn’t know was taken, or had my latest book proposal rejected. The trigger for this heretical notion comes from an e-mail from a friend, a writer, whose own relationship with the Internet is, admittedly, a love/hate one. The email contained a lament that tapped into a thought I’ve sort of had but haven’t, um, had the time to think through.

After recounting a lovely domesticated evening of no particular consequence, my friend opined:

Remember when we used to write e-mails all the time about this minute crap? Remember when you could write anything on your blog and it didn’t matter because no one read it, really, except your best friend and maybe a few others? Remember when it didn’t matter that you ‘only’ had 350 twitter followers? I do. I loved those days. I loved when we weren’t all so busy, when we didn’t give a shit about the popularity contest the Internet has become, when we didn’t have to narrate our every damn move and respond to every damn comment and/or @ message.

I went out for beers last week with my friend … and we talked about all this, and we reminisced on the days when the online world was anonymous and thus, in a sense, more real and honest. We didn’t write essays; we just wrote.

I can’t see how we can really go back to that time, but I miss it. I miss it terribly. Even the people who ‘put it all out there’ — well, it’s different. They’re a ‘brand.’ And I wonder how that inevitably affects how they write.

Yes, we’ve heard variations of this theme before. Television was going to turn us into vegetables. Rock ‘n Roll was going to turn our heads to mush. Texting was going to destroy our ability to write — and e-mail was going to ruin our penmanship. Video games were going to turn our children into sociopathic killers. MTV was going to shorten our attention spans to units that are measured in nanoseconds.

But unlike most of that other stuff the Internet has become an always-on medium, background radiation even as we sleep, as the time-server-synced alarm clock on our smartphone prepares us propel us into another day of full-on connectivity.

I am as guilty as anyone for allowing media to consume most of my waking hours, even though much of it is a job requirement. And I flatter myself to think that my creative output could be better — or even good — if I wasn’t amusing myself to death.

But my friend has a point. When I take a long walk, my mind goes places it does not go otherwise. When I am in one of those increasingly rare venues where I have no access to the Internet, I don’t get restless. It would seem that I can’t put down my smartphones and iPad, but when I am separated from them a milder force does prevail, clarifying rather than clouding, as when the last vestiges of nicotine finally left my body those many years ago I gave up cigarettes.

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle, of course. We can’t uninvent texting, instant messages, e-mail and social media. As someone who remembers the “before” time, take it from me: the world is a much, much better place with these things in it. Even as some, in good faith, try to abide by Screen-Free Week starting today, they will discover that their ability to untether as a theological imperative is difficult, and ultimately ludicrous.

But I am one of the world’s fortunate people, paid for what I know rather than what I can lift, and with that comes an obligation to respect and nurture whatever craft I might have. I have a nagging suspicion that the Internet’s short-form appetite nourishes my own impulses, and that its unrelenting appetite for new content makes me dive right in rather than sit poolside for a while.

So as I reflect on the hours that I have engaged in “witty” Twitter repartee, or the times that I beat myself up for not tending to the garden of my personal blog(s), and question the decision to ever open up a Facebook account, I do have to wonder, as my friend did: Is all this making me a better writer, or just a different one?

Photo: Swimming pool in Sagaponack, Long Island. John C Abell/flickr


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It’s making you a worse writer. Witness: “and that its unrelenting creation of new content makes me to dive right in rather than sit poolside for a while.”

The instant access to global distribution also comes with no editors and no standards. When a newspaper was an important (and expensive) thing to produce, editors stood guard against mindless drivel, because it was too expensive to waste space on the average joe’s ramblings. Not so with the Internets. Any idiot can hold forth (and post comments). In addition to reducing our attention spans, Social Media has reduced our standards.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

What a bunch of narcissistic claptrap – get over yourself – what a generation that thinks their musings are of such import.

Posted by pjmcleod | Report as abusive

There needs to be more civility and thought on the internet, and less spouting about what people believe are true. I have no problem with someone disagreeing with me, but throwing civility and common sense out the window for the sake of “honesty” is garbage.

Posted by FISH76 | Report as abusive

The world is definitely wasting too much time on mindless chores becasue it’s the “in” thing to do. Queueing up for the latest gadgets only upgrades the gadget, not you. The time and money spent could have been used for something more productive and educational. The guy with the better phone doesn’t necessarily make better choices or more money. And I would bet anything 90% or more of the stuff you read or write on Facebook is garbage. Your time is more precious than stupid “facebooking”.

Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive

@PapaDisco nice catch. I’ll mention it to my editor.

You’re correct, of course, that lack of oversight is an issue. But haste is also a culprit, as anyone who’s ever worked at a place with constant deadlines will tell you, no matter how deep and mature the shop’s editing hierarchy.

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that I thought the old days were good because there were gatekeepers. I frankly used to believe that, but it’s not a sustainable argument — as well as being academic.

Posted by John C Abell | Report as abusive

@pjmcleod If that’s a knock of me, what generation do you think I am?

I don’t know what generation you are, but I am old enough to know that insulting the musings of kids is a recurring generational theme, and always amusingly unprescient. Every generation creates enduring content. OK, maybe not disco …

Posted by John C Abell | Report as abusive

JAC Good point, that about haste. My second paragraph (rant?), btw 😉 was not directed at you.

I think the net-surfing speed and superficiality with which we all do our tasks today is a cursed gift of the internet age. ‘New York Minute?’ It’s a weak sister compared to internet time.

And my take on the old school need for editors/gatekeepers isn’t so much that THEY enforced standards, but that their very existence, and the pause that was inserted in the process, made us all elevate to a higher standard, or at least stop and read our work critically. I see so many smart people make so many errors of grammar, presentation and judgement simply because we’re moving so fast and there’s no way un-send. There used to be several days and many visits to the typing pool between you and the presentation to the client. Not so anymore.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

@PapaDisco On that we are in complete agreement. Though I am a strong believer that standards can be maintained even by conscientious amateurs working alone.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive