The first thing I do in the morning is turn on the computer and the last thing I do before bed is back up my files and turn it off. I suspect that this is the case for most people of my generation, because there’s Facebook and e-mail to check, though fellow students around here often take e-mail hiatuses because we get so much and fall behind by a day or whatever, which I work hard to avoid. This general approach is something that I’ve been moving away from in several respects but I haven’t really consolidated it before into the thought that it’s a bad thing to be always returning to the computer. The reason for this is that a computer is a great tool but letting it outside the boundaries of being a tool makes it use up a lot more time than you ever expect it to, and it introduces an unhealthy dependence, which for so many involves a loss of social skills (so I am told—supposedly Facebook does that to people. I am yet to be convinced directly of this), and worse, a lowered attention span and ability to concentrate.

Let me list some of the things that I think I’ve done in this general direction. Firstly, I’ve stopped using things in the web browser, so that I only have reason to open it when I want to look at a specific page or search up information on a specific topic—it’s not a place of distraction. Instead all the things I want to read online flow in via RSS (I’ll explain this a little more later), and I can read them sequentially and purposefully. Secondly of course I haven’t been using Facebook for a long time but this is old news, and I’ve only been reading and not posting to Twitter, again via RSS, for quite a while too.

However my life is still centred around the computer in a way that I don’t think it should be. Suppose I’ve been the library with my laptop to do some work; this has been the computer as a tool. On arriving back the very first thing I’ll do is plug back into my monitor and keyboard so that I can check feeds, Twitter and e-mail, before I actually switch to the next thing that I need to do, be that laundry, a piece of work, organising some paper or actually sending an e-mail. In the evening, I won’t relax with a TV show, something interesting to read or whatever but instead I’ll let my time be frittered away by things I don’t really care about online because it’s easier to let time disappear like that. I know that I am actually a lot better than most people at this. I have friends who spend their entire evenings doing this sort of thing, whereas for me it doesn’t tend to start until about nine or something.

I do not wish to suggest that the fact that I run my life electronically and the fact I do my degree electronically (not the Maths half) are any kind of problem, nor is it an issue that most of my reading and information concerning the wider world comes in electronically. And it’s one of the best things ever that I have access to vast swathes of information via the web. But the drifting—that’s the word, and I wish it’d come back to me earlier in writing this piece—that you get with a computer loses time and destroys your ability to concentrate properly, and it demeans the computer as a powerful tool. We can see this problem by comparing the way I read the news and the various blogs I am subscribed to compared to reading the paper: just look at the possibility for distraction. If I’ve got a newspaper or magazine and no computer, I’ll just read, and I won’t be reading distractedly but I’ll be thinking (fairly) hard about what I’m reading, too. But on a computer I’ll be reading and instead of thinking things I’ll be banging them into a search engine, opening twenty tabs and then ending up skimming them all, not really getting much of value from the experience but passing the time so that’s okay then thank you brain. And instead of sitting down to do this, it’ll intrude all over my day. Mildly challenging thing? I’ll just check my feeds first, it’s right there. This is bad. I’m not sure it’s straight-up procrastination, just a weird kind of habit.

This has been a lot of words to describe a phenomenon that most people are familiar with and I am disappointed that I didn’t manage to put it more succinctly than I have. Computers being central to our lives mean that we use them indiscriminately to the great detriment of our ability to do interesting things in a thoughtful manner, and that’s bad.

I’m in a good position because of my RSS setup. I have a piece of software called Gnus, which may be controlled by the space bar. I open it up, hit space and my first e-mail opens. After I’ve read it and replied if necessary space will take me to the next message (if the message is too long to fit on the screen, space scrolls until the end from where it moves on to the next message). At the end of the last e-mail, space takes me onto the next ‘group’, which is Twitter, and then at the end of that I get taken onto blogs, and then at some point there are the feeds off the Guardian website. Outside of this, it’s hard to be distracted because I have no reason to go onto the Twitter website or whatever. All I need to do now, then, is to limit my usage of Gnus. By keeping it closed all day, and only opening it up after lunch and in the early evening, I can sit down to read interesting things, catch up with friends who are far away and who tweet (if I wasn’t against some of Facebook’s terrible policies I could do this with a service that provides a digest of your Facebook timeline, or whatever it is they call it), rattle through the deluge of e-mails,[1] and then the rest of the day I am free to meet with friends and actually talk to them, do my degree, and pursue my various other projects. One of these projects is to find interesting things on the Internet; that’s fine, but this is definitely different to the drifting, filling up slots all over the place with messing about.

So this is my plan: to work hard on restricting my intake of Internet to a couple of set times in the day, so that I can enjoy it properly and not merely have it as a distraction which it doesn’t deserve to be. I’m still figuring out if there’s a problem with getting up to the computer and turning it off last thing at night, and this is probably indicative of something else, so I’ll leave it aside for now.

The response is that the immediacy of the Internet is lost with this schema. I won’t know about the news until I read it, and Twitter won’t be a way of seeing what’s hitting the (first) world right now, and I’ll always be behind—some would say that I’m defeating the whole purpose of Twitter. I do not think that this is actually a problem at all. Twenty-four hour news and keeping track of a friend’s activities as the day progresses are not valuable; knowing about what’s going on in the world at the moment and reading analysis of it, and having a general idea of what’s going on your friend’s lives, are. It is important to recognise that neither of these things affect our own lives directly in a day-to-day sense, and more important still to realise that this doesn’t diminish the value of knowing about them in good time, but not now, the point being that the cost—one’s concentration—is too high. I have serious issues with focusing at the moment; hopefully I can help myself by choosing to take more time over things that matter, rather than infusing them into things that matter just as much (rest of my life) that has the effect of degrading the importance of both.

Interesting post; I should have thought it out more and aimed a little more carefully but I’ve said some stuff I wanted to say and have set up where I am to go with it so that’ll do for now.

[1] To give you an idea of the quantities, I get maybe 30 e-mails per day into my main inbox, about 20 more into a couple of secondary inboxes, maybe 10 posts to mailing lists, maybe 30 blog posts, and perhaps a hundred tweets. There are perhaps 10 out of all this that I don’t actually read, and everything else requires my full attention. Outside of term time the total probably drops by more than 50%.