By B. E. Scully
I’d been putting it off for months, but the short-circuiting connection plug forced my hand. About to hand my laptop over the computer repair shop counter, I was as reluctant as Eric Snowden at a CIA convention. Like many people these days, that hunk of plastic and parts was my primary connection to the world.
I finally let go and asked the critical question. “How long will it take to fix?”
“At least a week; maybe more if we have to order parts.”
At least a week. Maybe more.
Five years ago, even one day without my laptop would have sent me into serious withdrawal. Five years ago, I would abandon making dinner to go check my Twitter feed. My trusty screen would be at my side while watching a movie or television, demanding attention like an irritable toddler. My laptop woke up with me in the morning and stayed that way until we both went to sleep. Once it even tagged along on a family vacation.
The problem began with my first novel. The actual writing part wasn’t the issue. At the time I had no social media accounts, and I lost entire afternoons doing nothing but researching, writing, and revising.
Then came pre- and post-publication.
I quickly learned that in our media-saturated age, promotion counts almost as much as product. So I Twittered; I posted on Facebook; I blogged. I checked sales stats, tracked customer reviews, and responded to every request for an interview or article no matter how small or obscure the source. I was becoming an online promo pro.
And then one day I looked up from my screen and realized that I hadn’t written anything substantial in almost a year.
In his now (in)famous article “What’s Wrong With the Modern World,” author Jonathan Franzen states that “the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems … [but] what we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.”
McCarton Ackerman writes in salon.com, “Internet addiction can be especially harmful for those who make a living through intense focus – such as novelists.” He says some novelists, including Zadie Smith, use Internet-blocking software programs such as Freedom and Self Control. “Smith … thanks these programs in [her new novel NW’s] acknowledgements ‘for creating the time.’”
And it’s not just writers who feel the weight of the Internet’s increasingly heavy hand. If students or their parents had a question or concern, they used to make an appointment during school or office hours. Then, email and instant chat arrived on the scene. Now it’s routine — and sometimes required — for teachers to provide students with cell phone numbers. In both school systems and places of employment, more and more online obligations are being added with no corresponding reduction of the traditional workload.
It’s hard to evict the technological behemoth camped in our living rooms when so much of our professional success requires its being there.
One of the downsides of living in a time of change as vast and rapid as the technological revolution is that the negatives can begin to overshadow the positives. The Internet has allowed me to network with and discover authors and artists I hadn’t even heard of. Likewise, my own work can now reach diverse global audiences. Online venues and services like print-on-demand publishing have opened up incredible new opportunities for both readers and writers, including publications like VoiceCatcher. (Even Franzen would appreciate the irony of so many people having a platform to bemoan the Internet — because of the Internet!). If I could magically make the Internet go away, I wouldn’t really want it to, and would miss it if it did.
Well, at least most of the time.
Like all zeitgeists before it, our Internet culture will inevitably peak and ebb into something more in proportion with the rest of our lives. The behemoth will retreat to the yard and wait for us to invite it in. But in the meantime, it’s more crucial than ever to make time for the nothingness of non-connectivity.
What did I do with my own laptop-free days? After taking care of basic business on a back-up system, I read without time limits and wrote without purpose (with a pen! on paper!). My daily walks grew longer and more rambling. And most blissful of all, sometimes I spent the extra hours doing nothing at all.
The 19th century journalist and critic Margaret Fuller wrote,
If any individual live too much in relations, so that he becomes a stranger to the resources of his own nature, he falls after a while into a distraction, or imbecility, from which he can only be cured by a time of isolation, which gives the renovating fountains time to rise up.
Margaret Fuller, The Great Lawsuit, page 39
Five years ago, I was falling into Internet imbecility. The experience taught me to guard my solitude and relish nothingness. Now, I set aside time for social media and then I get to work. At a certain point in the day, I shut the computer down even if the work isn’t finished. If every message hasn’t been answered or request fulfilled, that’s okay. I’ll get to them tomorrow, or perhaps not at all. I’m learning that a large part of managing one’s time on the Internet is learning when to say “no” and sticking to it. I don’t own a Smartphone, and if I ever do, I’ll make sure to keep it in my pocket until it’s truly needed.
Most important, once a week, usually on Saturdays, I celebrate “Luddite Day”: an entirely computer-free 24 hours. When I reconnect, I find that my online time is more selective, and more engaging as a result.
When life gets too hectic and I’m forced to skip Luddite Day, I feel the loss of daydreaming, imagining and reflecting; of relishing the vast, open spaces of nothingness, and the rich possibilities that wander in.
B.E. Scully writes tales dark and strange, drinks red wine and murky beer, cooks, reads, studies, and believes in the golden key. Scully lives in a haunted red house that lacks a foundation in the misty woods of Oregon with a variety of human and animal companions. Published work, interviews and odd scribblings can be found at B.E. Scully.