Is the Internet a waste of time? It’s not so easy to say. When I click around news sites, am I wasting time because I should be working instead? What if I’ve spent hours working, and I need a break? Am I wasting time if I watch cat videos, but not if I read a magazine story about the Iran nuclear deal? Am I wasting time if I look up the latest presidential polling numbers, but not if I’m communicating with an old friend on Facebook?
The notion that the Internet is bad for you seems premised on the idea that the Internet is one thing — a monolith. In reality it’s a befuddling mix of the stupid and the sublime, a shattered, contradictory, and fragmented medium. Internet detractors seem to miss this simple fact, which is why so many of their criticisms disintegrate under observation.
The way Internet pundits tell it, you’d think we stare for three hours at clickbait — those articles with hypersensational headlines — the way we once sat down and watched three hours of cartoons on Saturday morning TV. But most of us don’t do any one thing on the Internet. Instead, we do many things, some of it frivolous, some of it heavy. Our time spent in front of the computer is a mixed time, a time that reflects our desires — as opposed to the time spent sitting in front of the television where we were fed shows we didn’t necessarily enjoy. TV gave us few choices. Many of us truly did feel like we wasted our time — as our parents so often chided us — “rotting away” in front of the TV.
I keep reading — on screens — that in the age of screens we’ve lost our ability to concentrate, that we’ve become distracted. But when I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I notice a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement.
And I keep reading — on the Internet — that the Internet has made us antisocial, that we’ve lost the ability to have a conversation. But when I see people with their devices, what I see is people communicating with one another: texting, chatting, IM’ing. And I have to wonder, in what way is this not social? A conversation broken up into short bursts and quick emoticons is still a conversation. Watch someone’s face while they’re in the midst of a rapid-fire text message exchange: it’s full of emotion — anticipation, laughter, affect.
The Internet has been accused of making us shallow. We’re skimming, not reading. We lack the ability to engage deeply with a subject anymore. That’s both true and not true: we skim and browse certain types of content, and read others carefully. We’re not all using our devices the same way. Looking over the shoulders of people absorbed in their devices on the subway, I see many people reading newspapers and books and many others playing Candy Crush. Sometimes someone will be glancing at a newspaper one moment and playing a game the next.
The other night, I walked into the living room and my wife was glued to her iPad, reading “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Hours later, when I headed to bed, she hadn’t moved an inch, still transfixed by this 171-year-old narrative on her 21st-century device. When I said good night, she didn’t even look up.
Internet critics tell us time and again that our brains are being rewired; I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Every new media requires new ways of thinking. Wouldn’t it be strange if in the midst of this digital revolution we were still expected to use our brains in the same way we read books or watched TV?
The resistance to the Internet shouldn’t surprise us: Cultural reactionaries defending the status quo have been around as long as media has. Marshall McLuhan tells us that television was written off by people invested in literature as merely “mass entertainment” just as the printed book was met with the same skepticism in the 16th century by scholastic philosophers. McLuhan says that “the vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been by-passed and engulfed by new media . . . The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who have acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.”
I’m told that our children are most at risk, that the excessive use of computers has led our kids to view the real world as fake. But I’m not so sure that even I can distinguish “real” from “fake.” How is my life on Facebook any less “real” than what happens in my day-to-day life? In fact, much of what does happen in my day-to-day life comes through Facebook — work opportunities, invitations to dinner parties, and even the topics I discuss at those dinner parties.
After reading one of those hysterical “devices are ruining your child” articles, my sister-in-law decided to take action. She imposed a system whereby, after dinner, the children were to “turn in” their devices — computers, smartphones, and tablets. They could “check them out” over the course of the evening, but only if they could prove they needed them for “educational purposes.” Upon confiscating my nephew’s cell phone one Friday night, she asked him on Saturday morning, “What plans do you have with your friends today?” “None,” he responded. “You took away my phone.”
On a vacation, after a full day of outdoor activities that included seeing the Grand Canyon and hiking, my friend and her family settled into the hotel for the evening. Her 12-year-old daughter is a fan of preteen goth girl crafting videos on YouTube, where she learns how to bedazzle black skull T-shirts and make perfectly ripped punk leggings. That evening, the girl selected some of her favorite videos to share with her mother. After agreeing to watch a few, her mother grew impatient. “This is nice, but I don’t want to spend the whole night clicking around.” The daughter responded indignantly that she wasn’t just “clicking around.” She was connecting with a community of girls her own age who shared similar interests.
Her mother was forced to reconsider her premise that her daughter was just wasting time on the Internet; instead, she was fully engaged, fostering an aesthetic, feeding her imagination, indulging in her creative proclivities, and hanging out with her friends, all from the comfort of a remote hotel room perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
Many Internet critics yearn for a return to solitude and introspection, quiet places far removed from the noises of our devices. But those places, away from the rabble, are starting to remind me of gated communities.
Kenneth Goldsmith is a poet who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay was adapted from his new book, “Wasting Time on the Internet.”