I noticed an interesting juxtaposition in two articles I’ve recently read about the intersection of “real life” and those we live online.
The first argues that “being busy” is an artificial creation or, as Tim Kreider puts it, “a hedge against emptiness.”
[People are] busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.
He says that busyness is “something we collectively force one another to do,” and he goes on at length about how he hates being busy (“Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve”) and has instead taken to an “undisclosed location” to focus and write.
Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check e-mail I have to drive to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again. …The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration.”
The piece has some really lovely passages, and I consider it a romantic idealization of what life can and should be. That’s why I’m anxious — it’s my surroundings! Who doesn’t want to drop out every once in a while and just be with nature, man? And this guy is doing it! He’s so right.
Then I read this piece by Nathan Jurgenson. In it, he argues that, in fact, the only reason we feel peaceful and like we’re actually accomplishing something when we’re offline is that it’s in direct relief to being online.
The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. One of our new hobbies is patting ourselves on the back by demonstrating how much we don’t go on Facebook. People boast about not having a profile. We have started to congratulate ourselves for keeping our phones in our pockets and fetishizing the offline as something more real to be nostalgic for. …Maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses.
Take that, guy who just bragged about his personal time-outs!
“The clear distinction between the on and offline, between human and technology,” Jurgenson writes, “is queered beyond tenability”:
It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends. We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off.
This piece also gets a lot of things right, and I consider it, as I did the Kreider article, to be a romantic idealization, this time of our lives online.
They key is to somehow find a happy medium. It’s not moving to rural France, and it’s not constantly taking pictures of the things and places you’re seeing instead of experiencing them. It’s somewhere in between, and that, to me, is the challenge of the technological times in which we live.