the net is the word-killer.

My brother-from-another-mother Chang has some thoughts on the proliferation of internet-connected smart phones and the way in which they have shaped our social behaviors.

This is a tricky subject to address without coming off as a Luddite. I love the Internet and the social and professional possibilities it has opened up. There are tons of articles out there about the dehumanizing aspects of our always-connectedness, and I agree with some of them on some points, but overall the Internet has been a good thing for me. Without the blog, Facebook, and Twitter, I wouldn’t be in touch on an almost daily basis with so many of my writer friends, for example. Without the readership of the blog, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that initial sales boost when I finally put Terms of Enlistment on the market, and it may not have climbed up the charts to the point where its visibility generated more sales. Without the blog and Twitter, I would probably still be looking for an agent, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have the agent that was at the top of my wish list from the start. I enjoy hearing from readers, and the Internet makes that easier than ever before. Twitter and Facebook are like my virtual water cooler during the day, where I socialize a bit and hear the latest snippets from my friends’ lives. It makes me feel less isolated.

But here’s the thing about the water cooler analogy: Much like you wouldn’t be able to get any work done if you set up your desk next to the water cooler permanently, Twitter and Facebook and the whole big Internet are absolute poison for productivity.

I have three different processes for writing. Most of the time, I work longhand, then transcribe the draft to the computer later and edit things on the fly. That’s my preferred method. If I need to write something on a tight deadline and don’t have time for transcribing, then I use the laptop and write into Scrivener or Word directly. And when I can’t or don’t want to write longhand but don’t want to have the Internet on my writing machine, I get out the Alphasmart Neo.

Guess which method yields the lowest word count per hour every time?

That would be “writing directly on the laptop”, the method that, technically speaking, should be the fastest. But when I write longhand, my word count per hour is often double or more. Call me weak, call me easily distracted, but writing on a machine that is connected to the Great Diversion is absolute poison for my productivity. WiFi can be turned off, but it turns back on too easily, and my brain is really good at justifying just why exactly I need to stay connected. So whenever I use the computer to do my drafting, I end up spending half my writing time checking email, doing Wikiwanders, or checking Twitter and Facebook.

Truth be told, that’s just about half the reason why I prefer working longhand. I do it primarily because I enjoy it and because it forces me to do a word-for-word revision when I type it up, but I also do it because it’s far easier for me to stay on task and get stuff done when my writing implement can’t also be used to check how many people found my latest Facebook entry amusing.

But Brother Chang’s blog post touches on something a little deeper than my boring inability to control myself when I’m hooked up to the Hive Mind. It’s the way in which our computers and cell phones have commandeered our lives. Go to a playground and see how many parents are sitting on a bench with phones in hand while the kids play with each other. (The other day I even saw a dad reading his cell phone while pushing his kid on the swing with the other hand.) People are just glued to their phones all the damn time now. The new place setting in restaurants is knife, fork, cloth napkin, phone. And don’t get me started on how many people I see texting while behind the wheel.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the technology. I love the way in which my phone lets me perform tasks that were not in the realm of the possible before we had smartphones. When I see an item at the computer store, I can scan the barcode and see which stores nearby have the same item for a lower price, and I can read the reviews of the gizmo to find out if it’s a piece of junk. My phone can direct me door-to-door if I have to go to an unknown address. It contains a high-definition video and still camera. And I have the whole Internet in my pocket wherever I go. If information is power, the smartphone is the single most powerful enabler I’ve ever owned.

But boy, does it have its pitfalls.

Brother Chang likens the compulsive check for email or Facebook updates to a rat hitting a lever for a pellet, and it’s very true that this steady stream of tiny rewards has done funny stuff to our brains, reshaped our behaviors in ways that are in many ways indistinguishable from drug addiction. I’m not proud of this, but I know I have lost entire days to the Internet with no productive output to show for it. Our brains have rewired themselves to dispense a little dopamine kick whenever we hear that new message sound or spot the little red number that lets us know others have commented on our Facebook post, and now we can’t stop pulling that lever. You know you’ve lost the ability to live in the moment when you see something beautiful or funny, and your first thought isn’t “That’s amazing!”, but “I gotta Instagram that for peer approval!” And when you can’t make it through a conversation with a friend over a meal without checking your Twitter feed, then yeah, I think it’s safe to say you have an addiction.

I don’t want to give up my iPhone, or the iPad, or the computer upstairs, or the PS3. I’m not going to turn into a Luddite, put everything on Craigslist, and move into a lakeside cabin without Internet access to bang out my novels on a typewriter. I won’t start delivering hand-written manuscripts to my publisher. But I’m going to be more mindful of the time I spend online. I think I’ll start turning the computer off after checking my email in the morning instead of leaving it on all day long. I’ll leave the gadgets in the car when I go out to scribble a page or three at the coffee shop. I’ll eat my lunches at the kitchen table instead of in front of the computer. And I hereby pledge to never even look at my phone when I’m sitting down somewhere with friends, unless the school is calling me to let me know the kids are bleeding from the eyes or something.

(But I’ll still sign up for the fiber-optic service we’ll be getting in a few weeks. I’m curbing my mobile social media use and online time, not going full-out J.D. Salinger. Daddy needs his megabits.)

10 thoughts on “the net is the word-killer.

  1. I eat lunch out fairly frequently at Twenty Tap, and it amazes me how often I see a table full of three or four people, and they are all totally immersed in their phones.

    I’m not being a luddite, here; I mean, I’m usually sitting by myself and surfing the ‘tubes on my iPad, but there is some strange new thing going on here that I just don’t get. I keep expecting Rod Serling to show up at my table to take my order or something…

  2. Mind you yes, I work in technology.

    But there are coworkers that I refuse to go to lunch with for the simple reason that they spend the entire lunch time glued into their screens. They are sharing stuff on facebook with each other, sending each other reddit links and texting rather than talk to the people they went out to lunch with!

    Eventually I shamed a few of them to break the habit, and they are reasonable peopel to have a lunch discussion with, now that they actually talk during their lunch break…

    I almost consider it akin to masturbation… Some things are public and social, and should be treated as such, but if your all alone in a private setting and have some time to kill… Hey by all means, but otherwise leave it in your pants eh?

  3. Hi, my name is Marko and…

    “…yeah, I think it’s safe to say (I) have an addiction…Daddy needs his megabits.”

  4. Check your router and see if it has the capability to disallow connections at particular times ….

    Or, more execs brute force, plug the router into a mechanical electric timer…

    Possible solutions?

  5. Danke, mein bruder von einer anderen mutter! (Blame or praise Google for the quality of my Deutsch!) Glad you liked it.

    A couple of things came to mind when I read your thoughts on my post.

    1) I guess I underplayed my love of the internet and technology. I wubb it. Since 1993 I’ve loved it. Love it. We’re on the same page on that and what it does/did/will do for us.

    2) Even with Freedom installed on my computer you’re dead on: I lose so much time due to the ease of getting online and mucking about. Almost makes me wish for dialup for lack of ease of use. Might make me think twice about going online.

    3) I’m about to go back to the novel I started in longhand. I gotta work those muscles back because they’re flabby.

    4) Next time you’re driving and you get to a stoplight look at the cars around you. Most of their drivers will have their faces pointed not at the road before them but at their phones. I have to put mine out of sight so I don’t join them in the group gaze. And one thing I like to do now is if I see someone in my rearview mirror looking at their phone I don’t move until they look up. This makes for comedy gold road rage. Yeah, I’m that guy.

    5) Really it’s about developing conscious usage of these devices and not just putting them in hand and not thinking about it. As someone else pointed out it’s really nothing more than masturbation after a certain point.

    Glad you dug it! Rock on!

  6. I don’t have a smart phone (although I’m being threatened with one). And I force myself to only look at the ‘Net at certain times, unless I need to hunt up material specifically for the piece I’m writing. It’s flippin’ hard, and I don’t always make my limits.

    The school where I substitute has a firm “no calling or texting” rule and it is enforced with an iron rod. You think you may have an emergency pending? Leave your phone with the secretary or have your parents call the office and you will be called summoned to take the call. But as soon as I say, “OK, if your work is done you may listen to music or use your computer with headphones” Boom! Half the class is plugged in. That half tends to be the boys, while the girls are doing homework, studying for another class, or so on. So I spend the rest of the period roaming, making sure no one is texting, e-mailing, or on Face/Twit/Pinter/et al.

  7. Regarding dining and smartphones, I’ve discovered that if I’m patient, the other people at the table will take out their phone first, then I can do it without being impolite. It’s become a conversation pause, a time mutually agreed upon, though unspoken, to scratch that itch.

    I think I’m atypical, though. I don’t face/tweet/tumbl/email obsessively and neither do my friends.

  8. My friends and I still know how to have a conversation in person. I realize, for some this is a rare gift. For us, since we’ve been separated by miles (not always many, but enough to make consistent face time less common – we’re almost always on Skype hanging out, or something similar – but when we get together?

    The phones come out to settle an argument by way of Google/Bing/WebCrawler of choice.

    They do not replace the argument/conversation. :)

  9. Now I’m forced to leave the house to access the internet. So I’ll go to the library or to a coffee shop or some other place with free public WiFi, and I’ll grab a cup of coffee or something to eat and do all the stuff I need to do online (publish writing, check email, read blogs, get on goofy websites, etc.). Additionally, because I’m out of the house and there are people around, I meet new people. I’ve met quite a few new friends this way (bonus!).

  10. Now imagine you live in a small, floating metal box and 47 other people’s drug addiction depends on you doing your job… What have I done to myself? *facepalm*