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.)