The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

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Ceasing to Exist: Three Months in the Social Media Detox Ward

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When I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year’s resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much.   It didn’t work, of course–what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it?   This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter.  I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even–I admit it–enamored with my reflection there.  And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another.  J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates.

So I prepared my friends, my “friends,” and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you’d think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me.  The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle.  I suddenly had no access to the two sites I’d grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day.  You see, I’m not internet savvy.  I don’t have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing.  Not that I want to.  I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there’s something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there’s just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe.  The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I’ve realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full.  There is always another piece of candy to claw at.  One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay, five…it’s not long before you’ve made yourself sick.

The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I’d depended on those sites for community.  Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home.  Alone.   Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat.  One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor.  Now I’m convinced there’s a patch of dead grass in my brain–it simply cannot be brought to life!

I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so’s novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date.  That might have been funny, but wasn’t the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience?  I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site.  In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well):
Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic “marketing tool” or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts.
The pain of missing “all the best parts” has been the hardest aspect of my detox.  I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft.  I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or–wait–Chloe Sevigny in Kids!  Or wait…!  It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park.

I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter.  I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I’d much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could.  A month into my detox, I was clueless–not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance.  I’d felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of  cable, and effectively, television-watching.   The level of my family’s discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, “People in hell want ice water.”)  In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding.   During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too.  All conversations seemed to begin with, “Did you see on Facebook…”   I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful.

And also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world.  He writes:
Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return.  Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way.  Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes.

But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site.  You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence.  But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends.
I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative.  Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct.   If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine.  I’d rather “The Man” try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters.  But Lanier makes a good point when he says,  “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.”   I’m not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates.  And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world.

At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression.  Spend time developing your narrative voice online.  (Check.)  Don’t post anonymously. (Check–well, most of the time.)  And, in a doozy of a sentence, he  suggests that Twitter-users stop describing “trivial external events… to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine.”   Amen to that.

The problem of the internet–its power, and the way it’s changing how we live our lives–is a big topic these days.    There’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  The internet age is so young that we’re worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us–we simply have no idea.  The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it.  Almost everyone I spoke to said, “I wish I could do that!”  Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren’t convinced.  Or they said, “Okay, yes, next month. I’ll try it.”  And then they wouldn’t.  It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering  photos of themselves, “liking” a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It’s a never-ending race to remind others that we’re here, that we exist.  It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom.  “Look!”  I’d yell every few seconds.  “You’re NOT watching! Look!”  It gets exhausting.  And it’s not really living.

So here we are.  It’s now past April 1st, and I haven’t ended the detox.  The truth is, I don’t miss the two sites much.   These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there.  In my mind, it’s a crowded elevator where everyone’s talking over one another.  They’re all saying interesting things, but who can keep track?  Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to?  I want to return, and I want to show restraint.  And if I can’t, I will have to detach once again.  That might be fine.  Since January, I’ve enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world.  I don’t need to broadcast my life on a daily basis.  If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, “How are you?” will be genuine, and that will feel good.

[Image credit: Marcos Zerene]

Slow Me Up, Slow Me Down

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The sooner you fall behind, the more time you’ll have to catch up.—Steven Wright

My life is running away from me, and I can’t keep up. Maybe you can relate.  I’m starting to wonder if humanity is divided between those who thrive on speed and those who are pummeled by it.

The slowpokes have been rising up, in pockets here and there, for a few years now.  slowLab is an organization devoted to “exploring slower rhythms of engagement with people, places, and things around us” (via projects like Slow Consumption, Slow Communities, and Slow Teen).  At, you can learn about other Slow philosophies, like Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Travel, etc. 

A Slow Blogging Manifesto, penned (typed) by technology consultant Todd Sieling in 2006, declared Slow Blogging
a rejection of immediacy… an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly… Slow Blogging is a reversal of the disintegration into the one-liners and cutting turns of phrase that are often the early lives of our best ideas. It’s a process in which flashes of thought shine and then fade to take their place in the background as part of something larger. Slow Blogging does not write thoughts onto the ethereal and eternal parchment before they provide an enduring worth in the shape of our ideas over time.    
Sieling even has a recipe for how Twitter can be used in a Slow-ethos way.

Most recently, Granta editor John Freeman has written a Slow Communication Manifesto (adapted from his forthcoming book The Tyranny of Email):
The ultimate form of progress… is learning to decide what is working and what is not; and working at this pace, emailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to change it…

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the manifesto of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world.
(Deep exhale: I just have to take a moment to thank the gods of Hotmail for limiting email downloads via Entourage to a minimum of every 20 minutes.)

Is slowness luxury or necessity? I’ve begun to wonder about this in relation to writing and reading specifically.  Novel-writing and deep-reading are slow.  Blogging and twittering (and, yes, emailing) are fast.  Can our brains do it all effectively?

As an experiment, I randomly picked five of my favorite novelists to see if they were bloggers/Twitterers:*

Denis Johnson – N
Annie Dillard – N
E.L. Doctorow – N
Tony Earley – N
Carrie Tiffany – N

*via quick google search, did not have time to search Twitter or Facebook specifically 

Then I looked up novelists from recent The Millions Top 10 lists and Book Reviews:

Elizabeth Stroud – N
Thomas Pynchon – N
Dave Eggers – N (tweeted for a hot second in March, then stopped)
Junot Diaz – N
Bryan Gilmer – Twitter
Stieg Larsson – N
Joseph O’Neill – N
Kazuo Ishiguro – N
Dan Chaon – Twitter
Orhan Pamuk – N
Emily St. John Mandel – blog and Twitter
Richard Ford – N
Colum McCann – N

Just a random sampling, nothing conclusive here; though my findings – how few of the novelists I/we admire spend time/energy on short-form quickies – were even more skewed toward abstinence than I had imagined.  Arguably there is a pattern, i.e. the more established the writer, the less the imperative to “connect” via blog and Twitter.  Although, I understand Margaret Atwood has started tweeting. Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Jose Saramago,  who started a blog a year ago (in Portuguese), has just posted his final post, turning his energies and attention to a new novel: “Goodbye therefore. Until another day? I sincerely don’t think so. I have started another book and want to dedicate all my time to it.”

The competition between fast and slow writing – possibly incompatible parts of the brain, dissonant brain energies – is something I think emerging long-form writers — who are urged (“required” is not quite accurate and yet seems closer to the truth) to blog and tweet lest our literary careers be stillborn — worry about.  We must “develop readership” or die, and yet what good is readership if the big-wide-slow writing doesn’t get done, or is somehow compromised?  

And short-fast reading/writing competes not only with novel-making, but also long-form reading. The other day, browsing in a bookstore (quickly, of course, because I had just a few minutes before I had to be somewhere), I found myself pouncing on Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue; at 83 pages, 4” x 6”, and large-ish print to boot, it beckoned me like a mini-mirage, or like a life raft bobbing in the ocean of pages (2666, I’ll finish you yet!) that had engulfed me while I was busy updating my blog.

Nearly three-and-a-half hours I’ve been sitting at my desk working at this essay now, so I’d better speed it up.  What have I missed or mis-stated?  Where are the sloppy leaps in logic?  To what degree is this piece a failed internal loop rather than a provocative work of essayistic exploration?  No time to worry about it now; your comments will be my answer.

Surprise Me!