Busy-ness is not depth

When I first discovered the enormous mass of online information and social connections lying beneath the surface of my seemingly tranquil life, I got pretty obsessed with the internet. But it seemed like nothing I could do could get me to that far-off, ill-defined place in which I’d achieve informational nirvana: all of my feeds would be read, all of my social connections would be firmly in place, and my workflow would be blessedly frictionless.

Then I realized I was experiencing what millions of others experience: the modern curse of multitasking, skimming the virtual surface, distracting myself to death, etc, etc.

In the last few months — neatly coinciding with the revelation that in October the first of my offspring will enter this mortal coil — I’ve worked hard to put those habits behind me. I want to dig deep again, whether it’s reading an article online, connecting to friends on Facebook, writing posts like this one, or (gasp!) reading a novel. There’s no reason advanced minds such as our own can’t handle the crazy influx of information that whooshes in every day, every hour, every second.

But it looks like social trends are veering in a different direction. Writes the Times Online’s Bryan Appleyard (emphasis mine):

One irony that lies behind all this is the myth that children are good at this stuff. Adults often joke that their 10-year-old has to fix the computer. But it’s not true. Studies show older people are generally more adept with computers than younger. This is because, like all multitaskers, the kids are deluding themselves into thinking that busy-ness is depth when, in fact, they are skimming the surface of cyberspace as surely as they are skimming the surface of life. It takes an adult imagination to discriminate, to make judgments; and those are the only skills that really matter.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” Allen Ginsberg wrote way back when. I’m thinking the same thing, but instead of post-war hysteria and psychotropic drug use, I’m seeing Google Reader addiction.

(A disclaimer: I use Google Reader and I’m a big believer in online social networks. But I don’t think the use of these things and a deeper intellectual life need to be mutually exclusive. Sue me.)

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