Twenty First Century Techno Think
This is written with a government agency ballpoint in an actual notebook. Ink and pulp.
The best thing about having a plastic internet is that you can willfully change it.
Invariably, it’ll be clacked into a word processor and will fill a specific internet page like a fart in an elevator. I can’t just scan in the pages. My handwriting is too liquid to be decoded by anyone but me. Call me Mr. Enigma-Turing.
Earlier, whole days ago, I reached a technological breaking point and careened through it stuntman-style. It unfolded thus: mid-bout in a Sporcle binge, going at it with the frenzied stupor generally reserved for wake-up sex, I gave each puzzle a cursory glance-over before clacking in the answers I immediately knew, then hitting “I Give Up” to satisfy my near-empty curiosity a microsecond before I ordered up the next tasteless flake of pixel-drivel. Sprawled on a sofa bed with blood-shot eyes and distantly disgusted with myself, TV blaring two yards away, I felt a buried urge to stop, felt that breaking point, but I ignored the dour hooting of my despairing subconscious in order to keep clicking and blinking. Clicking and blinking.
Clicking and blinking click click. Click.
Luckily, upon visiting the familiars for the Annual Gnawing of the Bird, the ol’ laptop OS hiccuped and refused to allow access to the .coms and .docs. Praise the respite-giving unreliability of the literal Gateway to the addictive internet.
My grandpa, the Great Jack Mac, died a couple of years ago, leaving behind a decrepit, ignored desktop equipped with AOL and a dial-up connection. When we hung out, I inwardly marveled how much I outstripped him in the ability to absorb and synthesize information on the fly. I could orient myself in an overhead conversation, absorb pertinent facts by glancing through a newspaper, play with his beloved Molly dog, and chatter on about the Chicago Bullshooters game on TV simultaneously, skipping through each info-stream without breaking mental stride. Noting the “long” time he needed to get up to speed as he switched his attention from task to task, a strange, and upon present reflection, hollow, sly satisfaction insinuated itself in me.
The Great Jack Mac was a very sharp man, a lawyer and the consummate conversationalist, but he wasn’t whelped digitally.
Pleased I was, indeed, at the agility of my micro-focus, of my brain’s ability to navigate multiple seas of information simultaneously. I could see the Great Jack Mac’s brain crank into gear. I could see him reeling his focus in and casting it grandly out again in slow sweeping arcs while I machine-gunned my focus into whatever puddle appeared in front of me. How slightly splendid it felt, how slightly superior. How slightly annoyed I became waiting for his analogue brain to catch up to my digital one.
Oh, my misplaced self-affection.
Is it the physicality of the book-pawing? Because it’s an actual journey to consult a tangible dictionary, no matter how clipped and quotidian? Because the brief time it takes to consult the tangible dictionary helps settle the definitions into the brain more solidly than the flitting web-clicking? Because there’s a temporal and physical toll to pay to consult the tangible dictionary?
One: our brains and the attendant thinking/memory processes are plastic/malleable. Two: the internet, as a tool, rewards skimming, superficial absorption, and distraction. Three, culminatingly: as we’re increasingly plugged in and netted up, our brains physically adapt to this changing mode of thinking, writing, and reading, leaving us incapable of deep reading, jumping into long strains of straightened focus, or celebrating subtlety.
Instead of being information connoisseurs and curators, we’re becoming information junkies, gorging at the trough.
As writers and readers and artists, it’s imperative that we recognize not only how our digital tools convenience us but also how they shape and alter our minds and work. There is a digital style of writing that features short bursts of search engine-flagging content designed to be absorbed and quickly redirect you to the next ad-dappled page. Remember this: click-throughs increase revenues.
This is content-farming, which is an intriguing compound word. A project for another day would be to trace the etymology of –farming as a slightly ominous, large-scale descriptor. Farm as agrarian pastoral is evaporating.
There’s an opportunity now for artists to leap past content-farming modes, to step over our lovable blogsters and online lit journals, and find new ways of writing and working on the web that avoids click-through content or re-creating the paper page digitally.
It’s time to bend the internet to our artistic wills instead of letting it silently shape our minds. But that’ll involve a little techno-how, so grab your Coding for Morons books and think about possibilities.
The best thing about having a plastic brain is that you can willfully change it. Just because today you can’t read more than a line of the Iliad without drifting off to check your RSS feed doesn’t mean that tomorrow you can’t. If you’re not fond of your brain’s current capacities, you can change them. The internet isn’t lurking or insidious—it only changes you as much as you allow it.