Saturday, January 02, 2010

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

The need for speed is ubiquitous these days, surrounding us in a maelstrom of noise, from high-speed Internet that lets us multitask (and by multitask I mean uploading a video to YouTube while Twittering about Twilight) to action movies filled with 2 hours of explosions and jump cuts. The intensity of the media we consume, media that is designed to make us solitary, selfish creatures (Yahoo! is all about you! Customize your profile! We won't even show you any ads you don't relate to!) bleeds over into activities we execute away from the computer, like driving. As we all know, a major problem on the road today is that people can't seem to go without technology even behind the wheel, causing aggressive and absent-minded driving, accidents and unfortunately, death.

Just as generations before us were sold Electrolux and better living through chemistry, we are being sold social media as the revolution of the future. (For the record, I am not here to dispute the fact that the refrigerator is the best thing that was ever invented. It's a great place to store your sliced bread.) But we are duped into thinking that because most of the social web is offered as a free service, there is something liberal and democratic about it. Not necessarily. When I worked in online marketing, my supervisor once said, "I don't understand when people complain that they're being marketed to in a branded, online space. Do they think this is actually free?"

If we are going to be critical of big corporations and go green, use organic cleaning products and buy local produce, maybe we shouldn't be so blind as to think that our constant use of social media comes without a price. It pulls us away from our real lives, from nature, from interacting physically with one another. Yes, the web can be a brilliantly useful tool; certainly there is a phenomenon of parents coming clean about the perils of child-rearing and connecting in new, supportive ways. And it is of course a fun-filled arena of "communication," but is that communication of quality?

I am as guilty of TwitFace addiction as the next guy. I know that social media can be a friend when you're alone and suffering, be it going through a divorce or just forced to watch aging hippies perform poetry for hours. ("Only 14 hours of poetry to go. The old hippies have taken over the stage. I feel like I am inside Jerry Garcia's dead butthole." - Diane O'Debra). Who doesn't love getting a good quip in as they RT or respond to a status update? But at the same time, how many of us are "connected" online to people who, when we are face to face, have no idea what to say, or worse yet, wouldn't even bother?

PC's had become commonplace in offices and colleges by the late 90's when the Internet took hold of the American public's imagination. I remember signing up for my Yahoo email account as I graduated college in 1999. It felt so magical. When I entered the workforce, online shopping was the great distraction of employees nationwide. And then in 2004, I started to blog. Blogs were the first social networks, and they were - and for the most part still are - so much more substantial than the bite-sized nuggets of information offered on Facebook or Twitter. You could "meet" a fellow blogger online that you'd never met "IRL" and get to know them through their posts. Chances are, after enough online interaction, you'd end up meeting in person. I still lament the loss of the great WYSIWYG Talent Show at PS 122. My appearances there not only served as networking events during which I met some incredible people, but also helped advance my profile on the New York scene. Yes, bloggers were taking photos of each other just to put on their blogs, much like the Facebook pics of today, but on a blog, photos were accompanied by stories and links. You had to invest something to be a part of the blogging community.

And sure, there are uses and even advantages to Twitter and Facebook. Both can allow you to lead the people you're connected with to meatier content elsewhere on the web. The trouble is, many people (myself included) are so bogged down trying to keep up with everyone they follow on these sites, they don't have time for meatier content.

Which leads me to Trevor Butterworth's media manifesto, "Time For a Slow-Word Movement." In it he says:

In short, a relentless, endless free diet of fast media is bad for your brain. Generation Google--those who have never known a world without the Internet--it turns out, not only cannot use Google effectively, they don't even know enough about how to search for information to know they can't use Google effectively. The idea that the kids are whizzes at multimedia tasking is a platitude confected by middle-aged techno gurus to peddle their expertise as explainers of generational difference. In fact, relentless multitasking erodes executive function. And while the brain may not be overloaded by 34 gigabytes of brute information a day, it appears that too many of these mental quanta are the equivalent of empty calories. PlayStation and texting need to be balanced out by reading novels, handwriting (for old-fashioned digital dexterity) and playing with other live people if you want your child to develop to be an effective, skill-acquiring, empathetic adult.

Marty Beckerman has a piece up on The Daily Beast postulating that the aughts were the Worst Decade Ever, based on this Pew report. I wonder how much the dawn of the Internet has to do with our dissatisfaction with the new millennium thus far? According to a chart on the Pew site, 65% of people think the Internet as a whole is a change for the better. But when elements of Internet culture are broken down, the numbers look like this:

BlackBerrys/iPhones 56%
Online Shopping 54%
Social Networking Sites 35%
Internet Blogs 29%

(More people getting tattoos is only considered an improvement by 7% of the people questioned. Maybe I should get a tattoo of my blog layout?)

Of course 9/11 and the subsequent years of tyranny under Bush have a lot to do with the negative opinion people have of the last ten years. And the media's intense and frenzied response to the polarizing culture that followed was all over the TV and web, making us ravenous in our consumption of not just news, but views. Of course I realize I'm part of the monster; just another college-educated idiot (that's what it says on my SUNY diploma) with an opinion to share and a free publishing platform with which to do it. It's not the technology I find objectionable, but the urge to make the technology the center of our lives, which, if left unchecked, is worrisome to say the least.

My niece is a part of generation Google, and not only does she have a smart phone at age 12, she also sleeps with it. She texts at a break-neck pace and can't have an uninterrupted conversation to save her life. She hates that I impose rules on her phone use when we spend time together, but I have to. This summer, when she spent the night with my daughter, they were lying in bed together, sleepover style, and she was texting her boyfriend (which is another thing a 12-year-old shouldn't have). When I asked her to hand over her phone for the night, she cried and hid it between her breasts (yet a third thing she shouldn't posses).

So, in 2010, I plan to draw some lines. I have decided to limit my use of Twitter and Facebook to 2 hours a day (whether consecutive or total), and to dedicate myself to writing fuller pieces, be they scripts, blog posts (leading, hopefully, to a memoir), stand-up or songs. I do not have a smart phone and though I considered getting one, I've decided against it. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves in the coming decade is take time to disconnect, power down and go offline.

The Pew report suggests that people have fond memories of the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, and I can see why. Life was uncluttered; there was more time then to just be. So I'll sign off now with this song, courtesy of the greatest/most disastrous website on all of the Internet, YouTube.

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

Ba da, Ba da, Ba da, Ba da...Feelin' Groovy.

Hello lamp-post,
What cha knowin'?
I've come to watch your flowers growin'.
Ain't cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in' doo-doo,
Feelin' groovy.

I've got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.


Timmy Mac said...

I am right there with you. I sit on the train and watch every single person staring into a screen and blocking out the world with headphones. Is it any wonder we're so selfish and unable to connect with each other in any meaningful way?

Carolyn said...

I get agita looking at that sometimes. The loud music everyone is pumping into their ears trying to push everyone else away... they would probably feel better if they just stopped pushing and started pulling people closer. But hey... I am also trying to accept the fact that I can't influence other people's behavior. Be the change you wish to see in the world and all that.