Idle Internet is Bad for the Soul

Waaay back when I first fin­ished col­lege and moved out on my own, I remem­ber tak­ing a small amount of pride in not intend­ing to own a tele­vi­sion set. My think­ing was that if I did­n’t own a tele­vi­sion, I could avoid some of the most addictive dis­trac­tions that mod­ern peo­ple deal with. Rather, all I would get was an Inter­net con­nec­tion, which would be much more edu­ca­tion­al, pro­duc­tive, and less addic­tive than tele­vi­sion. I would spend my time chas­ing ‘el­e­vat­ing’ pur­suits. I could be a mod­ern renais­sance man.

Damn I was a fool.

And not just because web­sites like Hulu and Net­flix have effec­tively brought tele­vi­sion too the Inter­net. What I’ve found is that spend­ing too much idle time on the Inter­net is every bit as addic­tive as tele­vi­sion and is quite poi­so­nous in its own right. I’ll tell you what I mean.

When I was a kid I watched what seemed like a lot of tele­vi­sion. I’d watch from late in the after­noon to late at night when I could. I always felt like crap after just a few minutes of watch­ing, yet, I would con­tinue to watch because it always seemed prefer­able to stop­ping. Stop­ping felt like a chore, or more specif­i­cal­ly, doing any­thing but watch tele­vi­sion would feel like a choir after watch­ing too much. Tele­vi­sion is engross­ing pas­sive enter­tain­ment, and it was easy for me to lose a lot of time to it.

The Inter­net, (or more prop­erly the Web,) on the other hand seemed like a much more prof­itable ven­ture. It’s mostly read­ing and is much more inter­ac­tive than tele­vi­sion. This must mean that, over­all, it’s bet­ter for my mind and less of a time-sink. Now I’m fairly cer­tain that that was a mis­take.

The Inter­net is a source of a wealth of infor­ma­tion. It’s also a fan­tas­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tions medi­um. It’s amaz­ing how, in the space of about a decade the Inter­net has expanded from a curios­ity to an essen­tial and ubiq­ui­tous busi­ness and life util­i­ty. Hav­ing instant access to infor­ma­tion through the likes of Google and Wikipedia is an amaz­ing boon that can­not really be under­stat­ed. One really can­not eas­ily do with­out an Inter­net con­nec­tion these days, and due to my pro­fes­sion (a soft­ware devel­op­er,) I cer­tainly can­not.

Yet with these ben­e­fits, the Inter­net con­sti­tutes a bit of a prob­lem. When I get on the Inter­net and start aim­lessly read­ing arti­cles, or Face­book, or blog­posts, I start to lose track of time, I get engrossed, and I lose the energy or will to break from it and do some­thing which, in the long term will be more reward­ing.

XKCD on Wikipedia

It’s real easy for me to get lost read­ing ran­dom arti­cles on the Inter­net. At first it feels productive: I’m learn­ing so much! But then, as time drags on, I find myself putting off stuff that either I need to do or would be a much more pro­duc­tive use of my time. I find myself skip­ping or skim­ming arti­cles that are long or dif­fi­cult and look­ing for more bite-­sized infor­ma­tion bits of enter­tain­ment. I find myself scour­ing for more to read or enter­tain myself long after I’ve ceased to feel like I’m learn­ing or being enter­tained, often even late into the night because the thought of stop­ping feels like a chore; it means I have to face what­ever it is that I’m avoid­ing.

I sup­pose the prob­lem here isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the Inter­net itself (nor was it tele­vi­sion then, either.) It could be that I’m lazy and like to put off chores. But when I find myself delay­ing things that I oth­er­wise like doing because they seem like a lit­tle more work than refresh­ing Face­book, it’s clear that the Web is chang­ing my per­spec­tive on what seems like a chore. It would seem like cut­ting out the Inter­net would make it eas­ier to focus on doing the things that I enjoy and make me feel less like I am wast­ing my time (as well as the things I ulti­mately have to do regard­less.)

So what’s the solu­tion? Well I’ve been exper­i­ment­ing with adding a con­tent block­ing proxy to my home net­work and block­ing the sites which dis­tract me the most, per­haps leav­ing time on the week­ends for indulging. Sim­pler is to use a browser plug­ing, like LeechBlock, which accom­plishes the same thing. I can also sub­scribe to my favorite sites through RSS/ATOM feeds and not be as wor­ried about get­ting dis­tracted by ran­dom click­ing. Another pos­si­bil­ity is strictly rationing my Inter­net time, plac­ing my work desk away from it, and mak­ing an itin­er­ary of all the things I intend to do or lookup while online, before get­ting on, and stick­ing to that list. I’ve also had some suc­cess down­load­ing man­u­als, rather than using the online ver­sions and falling into old habits as soon as the browser is open.

In the end though, I don’t have an easy solu­tion. It’s not as sim­ple as dis­con­nect­ing com­plete­ly… I can’t do that on account of work, but it’s also not just a mat­ter of a lit­tle more dis­ci­pline, as self con­trol is a finite resource and dif­fi­cult to man­age. So clear­ly, I need to renew my effort to cut down on my idle Inter­net time, because clear­ly, it’s bad for the soul.

    Last update: 23/01/2013

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