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Friday, October 14, 2005
By Paul Ford
There are two kinds of distraction, at least.
I'm getting so much spam. Hundreds of messages a day trying to seduce me by appealing to my darkest lusts and my greed. So I've gone back to basics. I stopped using my fancy word processor and installed WordPerfect for DOS, which was last updated about a decade ago, and which lets me type in gray letters on a blue screen without using any windows and without the need of a mouse. It never crashes. I also bought a little device called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is mostly sold to schools. The Neo is just a keyboard that stores text as you type it. It does nothing else. It doesn't tell the time or let me play games. It runs off of double-A batteries and the batteries last for hundreds of hours. Using the AlphaSmart and WordPerfect I've started to enjoy computing again. There is no Wikipedia, no email, no constantly changing the MP3s I'm listening to, no downloading going on. The spam still piles up but I'm not aware of it, because my email program is shut down until I want to send a message.
Right now there's a new buzzword out there: Web 2.0. No one is quite sure what it means but the basic idea is that by some clever programming you can bring forward some of the latent abilities of a web browser you can make applications that are more dynamic and more interactive than regular web pages. Pages that update dynamically and reward interaction. Google is the pioneer here, with its clickable Google Maps and zippy Google Mail. Being the geek that I am I have looked closely at the blog posts and articles about Web 2.0 and I understand what's going on, the new paradigms. I enjoy seeing all of the creativity going into these new dynamic To-do lists and calendars and forums. But I don't feel much like participating. I'm still programming at work, doing my job, but the rose has lost its bloom. I can't convince myself to stay up nights reading programming manuals.
It's not because I'm nostalgic for the old days of Web 1.0. They came and went and it was fun to be part of something so exciting as the early blossoming of the Internet, when everything seemed possible and young people could become rich just by willing it. But more and more I want my computer to do less and less. I don't want more information, more feeds, more sources. When I write, when I think, the Internet is just too much for me to fathom. It's a wonderful tool for research, a good way to kill a few hours. I grew up with computers, started hacking away when I was twelve. I always thought that the Internet would make me more productive, more aware of the world around me but instead I'm using technology that was laughable in 1995 and getting much more done. I feel more in command of my own mind, more reliant on my own thoughts, when I work in this stripped-down fashion.
I figure there are two different kinds of distractions: the wide kind and the narrow kind. The Internet is the widest possible distraction because it lets you wander so far afield that getting work done if you are, like me, the distractable sort of person--getting work done is almost impossible. I'm not the sort of person who can read a book with footnotes and ignore the footnotes. I have to read every footnote. I often prefer the footnotes because they point in so many directions. But when wide distractions are available I avoid the narrow distractions, and those are the useful distractions. Let's say you're thinking hard about a concept--say, kittens. Kittens are young cats. They have paws and they are sometimes friendly. Your stepmother, you remember, didn't let you have a kitten. Why was that? Was she allergic, or did she really just hate you? Now, that's something worth thinking about. A concept worth exploring. That's a narrow distraction, a good distraction.
But with a wide distraction you think about kittens and all of a sudden your email pops up and you're thinking about Viagra, and about how horrible the world is and how it's filled with rapacious greedy spammers. You're not able to think about kittens any more so you check out the news to find out that China has a manned space program. Click. And that peak oil is a real problem and we might be living in an age where electricity becomes prohibitively expensive. Click. And that Apple just released a new iPod again, and everyone is all aflutter. There's really no way to bring all of that back to kittens. You've been broadly distracted. You might as well play some solitaire and go to bed.
Distraction is necessary. Minds need to wander to get anything done. But the Internet is sort of the mental equivalent of the snack aisle at a convenience store, filled with satisfying fatty chips and tasty cream-filled cakes. God knows I've spent enough time with both the Internet and cream-filled cakes to see the similarities. And I now know that what I want, mentally, is a well-cooked meal. A book gives me that, a well-written, carefully-edited book. Even though your average book is filled with distractions--I mean, Ahab doesn't just chase the whale. There's all sorts of stuff in Moby Dick besides that. Otherwise it probably wouldn't be that good of a book. But the distractions are useful. They get us from one point to another. Sailing wide seas of opinion in a million does not do the same thing. This is not to condemn blogs. They are often great. But there are so many of them, and I will be dead for a long, long time. And on my deathbed do I want to say, I sipped mightily of Metafilter, and saw many video clips that made fun of Rosie O'Donnell, and I am richer for it? Or should I try to make contact with the culture that existed before 1992? The Internet makes it so easy to think that nothing of importance ever took place before the ARPANET was created.
It is a wonder of the world, the Web. I have facts at hand by the thousands about everything from the different kinds of government to the names of the stars of television shows I've never even seen. I'm smarter, then, with my computer on, but not much deeper. I worry that my knowledge of the world is actually growing shallower, in fact, because for every idea there are a dozen articles and Wikipedia entries to read that allow me to avoid thinking for myself. And it's not like any of that is going away, nor will I be staying away from it. Just putting it aside for a few hours a day so that I can think without the world humming in my ear, sitting in front of my blue screen with gray text, or stretched in bed with my little portable keyboard, a working setup so bland it's actually inspiring.