The Internet, Your Brain, and Your Time – Should You Worry?

Internet ApocalypseThe internet, some people (like Jonathan Franzen) believe, is ruining us.

In particular, Franzen cites Jeff Bezos, Amazon and the rise of self-publishing and e-books as a dire threat to the ‘serious writer’ – an august group which, presumably, includes himself but excludes  the thousands of people who are now accessing these internet-based tools.

It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot – not e-publishing per se – but the impact that the internet has on the ways that we gather, store and process information, as well as the ways that we spend – and think about – our time.

And so, I was interested to read a more measured piece on The Huffington Post by Kevin O’Kelly titled “eBooks vs. Print: Actually a Nonissue” in which he takes on the matter of our impending internet doom and puts it in perspective.

New means of transmitting information have always changed people’s brains and behavior, and people have always complained about it. Roughly 2400 years ago Plato complained that reading and writing would weaken people’s memories. And he was correct. The explosion of printed material and the near-universal adoption of silent reading during the Renaissance arguably changed how we think as well. Marshall McLuhan, famously argued that the act of silently scanning lines of printed text (as opposed to reading illuminated manuscripts out loud) had decisive consequences for Western thought and society: reading aloud to other people is a communal act; reading alone is an individual one. While McLuhan has his detractors, no historian seriously doubts Elizabeth Eisentein’s assertion in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change that “the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are arranged and presented.” And Franzen’s complaints about our “media-saturated moment,” echo the complaints of Renaissance curmudgeons that the printing press made it too easy to reproduce existing books and publish new ones. As 15th-century Venetian magistrate Filipo di Strata put it, “The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.”

I would certainly never argue that the internet hasn’t had a profound impact on our culture and on the ways that we think about things.  And I would not argue that it has all been positive – or that we are even aware of all of the ways that the internet is impacting us.

But what I would emphasize is that we have many choices about how we incorporate this powerful tool into our lives.  We are not just passive victims of an impending, internet-generated apocalypse.

Yes, the internet has added to our distractions and may increase our difficulty with focusing and staying on-task; but we can choose to use tools and time boundaries to address this. Indeed, there are few challenges presented by the internet that can’t be mitigated by the time choices that we make in our moments.  The power really is in our hands.

But what do you think about the internet and its omnipresence in our lives?  Has it impacted you in ways that you are worried about?

If so, I’d just remind you that you really can change that.  It may require the development of new habits, or the creation of some new time boundaries for yourself, but you can do it.  And what better time to start than right now?

Here’s to your time success …

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  1. Apparently similar comments about distraction and information overload were made when the first telephone networks were launched! Communications are a tool and, used properly, can only enrich our lives.

  2. Another thoughtful piece, thanks Paula. I love almost all of the advantages the internet has brought us and I am no spring chicken. I love books and reading but I love them digitally most of all and still read J. Frantzen even in that way so not sure what he’s so worried about! Travelling everywhere with my iPad means I have everything I need on me all the time and that makes me feel safe and connected and resourced. Yes, sometimes I fantasize about being disconnected or off grid, but as you point out… that’s always my choice at any time. I am not a victim. I LOVE being online.

    • LOL, Judith – you’ll have to reassure Jonathan! And I very much appreciate your response, which sums it up nicely. The advantages of the internet are many, and we can always choose how much (or how little) we want to be connected.

  3. I find that when I don’t have time in my busy schedule, I am still able to keep in contact with family, and friends via the interwebs. I think it will just take time to figure out balance within society, and among youth.

    • Yes, I think that you are right. And interestingly, among the young people who’ve grown up with the internet and e-books, apparently print books are still quite popular.

  4. Sophie Bowns says

    I’m forever getting distracted by the internet. I have blocked all my pop ups for that exact same reason!
    Information overload!

    • Good for you, Sophie. And I find it very helpful to reward myself for maintaining focus, with periodic ‘treats’ – whatever form that takes for you. This helps avoid feelings of deprivation that so often undermine our good intentions.

  5. Paula,
    I try really hard to do what I need to do on the internet early in the morning, when the family is asleep. Then I try to turn my back on the computer for much of the day, while we are busy with school and LIFE. Later in the day, I check it again for updates or messages, since I do so much of my communicating now on the computer. But I feel a constant PULL (addiction!) to get online and see what’s happening now. So this is how I have been changed by the internet. But how can I avoid this PULL? Ideas?

    • That’s a really interesting question, Amy. The first thing I’d do is observe (and write down) as many specifics as you can about when you are ‘pulled.’ What else is going on? What are you feeling? Is there something in particular that you are pulled toward? Something that you want to be pulled away from?

      The thing is, I don’t think you can avoid the pull. In fact, I’d suggest taking a step toward it – not by getting on the internet, but by digging in further to see what it’s really about. Once you know more about it, I bet you’ll know what to do next!

      PS – It’s nice to see the Vomiting Chicken at UBC again! 😉

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