Hoyt: Plugging In Productively
By Hannah Hoyt, Contributing Columnist
Published on Tuesday, October 16, 2012
During the time it took to write this column, I’ve finished two class readings, posted to a course blog, transferred some money between bank accounts, emailed a half dozen people, checked the weather (twice) and looked at some cool infographics depicting the presidential race. In short, I’ve done everything but write this article.
I tend to think of myself as focused. I finish assignments on time, sometimes even early. I respond to emails promptly. Yet here I am, wandering down rabbit holes of the Internet and wasting time. It’s easy to say that I’m distracted because my laptop gives me the ability to do all of these things at once from the Sherman Stacks, but I don’t think instant access to information is the reason that I have trouble focusing on one topic exclusively for a long period of time.
Rather, I think I’ve reached a saturation point in my capacity to take in, process and understand information. Until now, my strategy for using the Internet has been tuning in to everything to avoid missing something of importance. Over time, this strategy of overconsumption is taxing; as I move from email to article to blog, I can’t seem to shake the nagging feeling that there’s always more information to investigate and understand. With so much information to take in, the critical perspective I bring to written texts and books falls by the wayside. On the Internet, I consume passively, clicking on whatever hyperlink shows up at the bottom of the page, rather than intentionally seeking out specific content.
My struggle to retain a critical lens while using the Internet causes me to adopt an absolutist view that all Internet wandering is a bad distraction. I can’t separate productive distraction from negative distraction, and so I’m unable to leverage the time I spend browsing articles and blogs online. Our larger academic culture reinforces this extreme attitude by propagating a false dichotomy between the Internet — the way we do things now, and books — the way we did things then. Our professors lament the rise of laptops in classrooms and tell us that spell-check has made us dumber. Becca Rothfeld recently described literature as “the final bulwark against distraction” (“Kindling Distraction,” Oct. 4). We are surrounded by criticism of new media and its dangerous effects, so it’s hard not to get caught up in the idea that everything we do on the Internet besides work is a waste of time.
In his 2010 book “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr described the information we get from the Internet as “shallow” — having broad reach but little depth or substance. The more time we spend on the Internet, he argues, the more our brains begin to reflect this shallow information source and struggle to process more complex, in-depth sources of information like books and academic writing. The Internet, to Carr, is an “interruption system” that “seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
Although I have at times experienced the “shallowness” that Carr describes, his views and the sweeping categorization of the Internet as a source of distraction are a simplistic reduction of a larger, more complicated problem. It’s easy to label technology as the danger because extreme assessments are easier to adhere to than calls for using technology in moderation. So, we readily adopt extremes in our use of technology — either all in, checking email dozens of times a day during the school year — or all out, hiding from any form of contact in order to “take a break.” However, this pattern of extreme use of technology followed by extreme avoidance is unsustainable; our efforts to relax and separate ourselves from technology rarely last more than a vacation or summer break before we fall back in line with our prior habits of overconsumption.
What’s missing in our approach is the more challenging idea of technological moderation, of plugging-in in a way that augments, rather than reduces, our connection to the people around us. If we can set boundaries, we can loose the binary decision of connecting to the Internet or connecting to the people around us. In The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel describes this decision as learning to “plug in better.” It’s the process of shifting control over technology from the technology itself to the user. I’m not certain how to go about regaining this control and moving myself from my current mode of passive overconsumption, but I think more intentional and purposeful use of the Internet will help me reduce the sense of information saturation I’ve been feeling lately.