Sleepwalking through Cyberspace

The answer to the question “Just how much time did you spend on Facebook?” gets to the heart of what I find so insidious about it. Really, I think I'm being honest--I did not spend much time. I posted every now and then, liked photos, commented here and there. I blocked tons of people from my news feed. I did not lurk around very often. But it was background noise, and I already have enough of that, living where I live.  Maybe some people don't.

It was okay when I went on Facebook once a week or so, but it had become something I was checking daily, several times a day. An avalanche of senseless, disconnected, unprocessed information. Yes, it was often amusing. It was nice to see updates on friends. There were some people I was happy to be in better touch with because of it. And I liked our neighborhood gang—finding out about the baby crocodiles at Chelsea market or that they were having a picnic by the river that night.

But it was something that, more and more, was on the in the background. The supposed benefits of multitasking have long been disproved. And so the toggling back and forth between work and email and news or anything-at-all on the internet was simply a way to make my work take longer and my thinking less clear. Often when I am stuck somewhere on a project, my first instinct is to immediately distract myself with email/FB. Check it, then back to work. Write a few more sentences, then check again. Instead of pushing through a difficult spot, I’d just blank out, put off the real thinking for a few minutes. (Unless I was charging by the hour—that kept me on track.)

It’s not the hours clocked on social media, so much as the way they undermine a flow state, cause interference, create static, and derail us from answering the question, “How do I want to spend my time?” And most importantly, living out our answer.

If you check email or FB first thing in the morning, you’ve just run through everyone else’s priorities instead of your own, first. You might not answer them, but they’re there, nagging in your head. Oh yeah, have to answer Billy about what I’m bringing to Easter. Oh right, there’s the toddler meeting this week. Heather’s birthday. Remind Jeannine to send my 1099. I haven’t sent a check to Mark yet for The Walk for Hunger. All that, before even listing out, musing about, or even giving any thought at all what it is I want to get done that day. Many people know the experience of being legitimately busy all day—at work or home—but never getting done the essential tasks, in short, not prioritizing. I think all these things crowding the airwave undermine our ability to prioritize. Everything feels urgent.

If every time I get a free moment—or sometimes not even free, already playing with Wally, for example—I check some form of social media, it’s distracting, throwing me off course. Instead of saying, “I should do the piggy bank thing with Wally today” and committing to it, I just let myself be pinged around, let the afternoon dissolve into a million little distractions. Snack time interrupted by a text from a neighbor wanting to meet sidelined by Alex calling about dinner—do we have tomatoes?—then Wally calling me in to his room to fix the train tracks then back to FB to see if anyone’s meeting at the playground tonight, funny post from Amy--did anyone comment?--plus there are the photos from Amanda, it’s my aunt’s birthday, something happening at the Natural History museum this weekend—can we go? Run to get the calendar. Toggling screens, pinging around like in an pinball game, feeling tossed around at the mercy of other people, and finding myself looking forward to the end of the day, which is depressing, all in itself. The phone rings, the train tracks are crashing, there’s a yelp from the other room, I still haven’t finished the project I was working on, there’s the neighbor across the hall, "finding" me on Facebook, asking if we can meet.

So there is the information overload, the assault on the brain, the passiveness of responding to other people rather than deciding what I want to do, the background noise, the lack of flow state.

And on Facebook in particular there is the sense that everything is urgent. Everything is happening right now. People are liking the image of the dot matrix printed out birthday card from 1984. They get it! They remember it. They're taking the time while at work to say they like it. Someone’s getting a new haircut, someone else went to the zoo for the first time with her one year old. It’s all happening right now. People are there with you, answering you, looking at what you just re-posted from There’s your friend Vince, in San Francisco, skipping down the sidewalk with his daughter. Such a lovely picture. Such incredible lightness of being. So near, you could almost touch him. Here’s Pam, your cousin Brian’s wife whom you never met (never having made it down to their wedding). I love that she posted the chart showing Obama has spent far less than Reagan. I'll repost it. I'll let her know. All of that only takes a few seconds, a minute at most.

I don’t find myself, though, after having spent time on it, feeling myself expand. Here’s all this stuff—here are all these people—there’s so much happening, so much going on, and yet I don’t feel enlarged by it, in fact, I feel smaller. More desperate. I feel bigger life goals slipping further out of reach. Friends too, seeming more distant. I don’t feel myself growing closer to them or to anything at all. Vince isn't so near I could touch him. He's slipping further away, and will keep going, until someone finally tags the other in a night-time game of tag.

When Alex looks down at his phone, responding to a ping, I often find myself leaving the room. Okay—you go read that article Scott sent about the horrible stuff  happening in Toulouse.

"Wait, Toulouse," he calls after me. "Isn't that where you went in college...for your foreign study---?"

"Yes," I call back, still heading for another, less wired, less entangled room in the house. 

Last night I found myself picking up Banana Rose, the book by Natalie Goldberg. Two of her books on writing – Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind—are among my favorite about writing. I think Banana Rose might be her only novel. So far I'd only shuffled through the first hundred pages or so, even though I’ve had it out from the library for several weeks and it’s overdue. Last night I lay down on the couch and read through to page 373, the end. It was late when I set the book down, and I felt spent. Not zombie like. Spent in a way I remember from the summer after high school, where I’d come home late, just in time for the town’s 1 o’clock curfew for drivers under 18.

Back then I'd come home so full of feeling. Too late to call anyone on the house phone. No email, no cell phone, no texting in those days. No way to reach anyone immediately. Instead I'd pull out these ugly yellow legal pads we had all over the place, and start writing like crazy, my heart pounding out of my chest.

My voice was in my own head, and my thoughts were spilling onto the page, and things were being processed, banged out into some kind of rambling order, clearing the path for better understanding (mind you I would never attempt to put this stream-of-consciousness stuff directly into a novel, which is what Natalie Goldberg seems to have done in Banana Rose). When I was too tired to write anymore, I finally climbed up the stairs and went to sleep.

Last night, reading, even that God-awful book, I felt bigger afterward, fuller, dreamier, more connected to my past and future self. The book itself was way too autobiographical, loaded with dream imagery that no one but her own psychoanalyst could even pretend to care about for a mintue. I never felt a single shred of emotion for any of the characters, never cared what happened to them, even though lots of awful stuff sort of happened. The narrator was erratic, ungrounded, weak, annoying. Her moments of insight all came from random epiphanies in nature. The plotting felt forced, like someone was referring to a book on structure the whole way through (okay, now comes a turning point - Go!)

And still, I'm glad to have read it. I have to reconcile the fact that this brilliant giver of writing advice wrote this hideous thing. I want to think more about what was so awful about it (overwriting too, and way too much telling. "Anna was hurt." Ugh!) I want to talk about it with other people, after I get some sleep.

This morning I reminded Alex about tonight's the National Day of Unplugging, starting at sundown. Then I said how fun it was to just sit and read last night. I asked him why he hardly ever reads at night (except on screen--he's totally happy to read tons of stuff that way, articles from Scott, etc.).  He said that if he reads a book, he just falls asleep. On the computer or his smartphone, he somehow muddles through. You can be a zombie, even when you're really really tired. It's probably better when you're tired. Your judgement is diminished, your decision skills are limited. You can be a zombie, using very little thought to drive your actions, responding passively, doing what you're told.

I nodded. I understood. 

That is yet another thing that's so pernicious about technology -- you can engage with it even when you are absolutely beat, even when you're fighting sleep and should just Go the F*ck to Sleep. It's so passive, and requires so little input, so little thinking, so little brain activity, that you can sit there in front of the screen watching the virtual world even while you're virtually asleep. Maybe soon we won't be able to tell the difference.


  1. You nailed it! It's not the total minutes; it's the break in flow, momentum, pursuit, living.

    Let's list the things we're willing to interrupt to check Facebook and the things we're not.

    Things we're not willing to interrupt:
    Favorite TV show that we've seen 100 episodes of and can predict exactly what will happen (Still belongs on this list if you have a DVR and will only interrupt if you can record show);
    Sex (hopefully on this list, but you have to put it on the "willing to interrupt" list if you think about Facebook posts while having sex );
    Sleep (but willingly check if can't sleep, or put off sleep to check, or get up early to check --so maybe sleep belongs on "willing to interrupt" list).

    Things we're willing to interrupt (partial list):
    Life goals;
    Conversations with closest friends and family;
    Taking a walk;
    Enjoying nature:
    Watching a kid skip down the street.

  2. Yes - exactly. It's not the total minutes. It's breaking up the flow of things. I gotta read that Flow book by the guy with the last name that's just a longer version of his first name. It's clear that humans are so fulfilled when they can experience flow, yet we have all these ways of avoiding it.

    I also keep thinking, when it comes to internet addiction, that it's nothing new. Obliteration is nothing new. If it's not the internet, it's something else--drugs/alcohol. But the internet thing is somewhat shocking b/c it's more invisible and the addiction is accepted. Showing up to work drunk would be considered outrageous by most people. But even spending--what's the American average--2 hours a day while AT WORK online not engaged in work stuff--that seems to be overlooked by most managers, and I can't figure out why.

  3. Just wanted to post this Library Journal review of Banana Rose, for those who are interested. Has anyone read it? I'm just appalled.

    From Library Journal
    "In this tedious coming-of-age story, 29-year-old Nell, transplanted from New York to a Taos commune, takes the name Banana Rose, fancies herself a painter, and falls for an itinerant musician named Gauguin. She leaves her beloved Southwest to marry him in Minnesota. Things predictably fall apart, and Nell returns full circle to Taos. The central character's self-absorption does not make for a correspondingly absorbing narrative. Even with the pivotal Nell, no apparent focus forms from day-to-day occurrences that are itemized in monotonous detail. Too much of the novel reads like a dull adolescent's diary. If the characters were as interesting as their names, the reader might care what happens to them. Although this is Goldberg's first novel, she has-amazingly, given the quality of Banana Rose-written two nonfiction guides to writing (e.g., Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life, LJ 10/1/90). Not recommended."
    Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
    Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

  4. THIS RIGHT HERE IS ME EVERY SINGLE DAY AT WORK: And so the toggling back and forth between work and email and anything-at-all on the internet was simply a way to make my work take longer and my thinking less clear. Often when I am stuck somewhere on a project, my first instinct is to immediately distract myself with email/FB. Check it, then back to work. Write a few more sentences, then check again. Instead of pushing through a difficult spot, I’d just blank out, put off the real thinking for a few minutes.

    Thanks for visiting my blog, I'm enjoying reading about your own unplugging. I am currently on page 36 of my novel and I've made a date with my writing at least every Saturday and Sunday from 8:30 - 10:30am.

  5. i thought i read banana rose, but it's not on my librarything. do you like barbara kingsolver?

  6. Shamefully never read her -- is she stream-of-consciousness, too?

  7. No. I think you might like her.

  8. K. Nicole Williams - sorry I somehow missed your comment from the 23. Thanks for writing -- thanks for your honesty about distracted working -- it's very frustrating and totally unsatisfying, right? How did your writing go this weekend? I'm going to go over to your blog and see.


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