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Battling the Internet: Great Slave, Horrible Master

July 12, 2010

Kevin Burke
Battling the Internet: Great Slave, Horrible Master

Let's get right to the point: You are addicted to the Internet. You would not function properly if you couldn't get on it. At first withdrawal feels okay, and you feel tough, but after twelve hours or so you'll start getting pangs of longing. Then you start rationalizing: you need to shoot an email or check a score or see someone's response. People are counting on you. In a burst of shame and guilt you seek out the nearest cafe, or friend's smartphone, and get your fix. Believe it: in a recent University of Maryland studystudents were asked to give up all of their electronic connectivity for 24 hours, and many "experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen in drug and alcohol addicts, including cravings, anxieties, and preoccupation to the point of being unable to function well." When I was in India, it was amusing to see volunteers put up with 100+ degree heat, squat toilets, no toilet paper, hard-as-rock beds, scrubbing laundry, food poisoning, and power/water outages without much complaint, and then go apeshit because the wireless was down, as it often was in our corner of the subcontinent. It gives you an idea for how important the Internet has become to those of us from the West, but it also makes us look particularly shallow to the NGO staff, who provide the wireless as a favor, and were generally bemused at our behavior.

When the Internet was working it was prone to abuse, selfishness and bickering that you didn't see from the same people in other circumstances. A month before I left we found out someone was sneaking into the lab at night, downloading porn and movies on BitTorrent, slowing the connection to a crawl. When volunteers have to share the one or two terminals in the office, time is precious but people still use it for chat and Facebook, despite the signs and people waiting. And the people waiting like to check the screen and privately pass judgment on the user's surfing habits. You mean you're keeping me waiting just to chat?

From your brain's point of view, checking the Internet is like playing the slots; most of the information we get is bland but sometimes, the thrill of getting exciting news or hearing from a sexy lady makes our heart race. So each time we go online we're essentially gambling on what sort of info we are going to receive, akin to pulling the handle on a slot machine. Second, there's something about clicking the mouse, consuming information and opening new pages that gives us the illusion that we're putting in a lot of work. Third, once you're on the Internet it's really easy to continue to lazily consume information, allowing more bits to flicker across the screen, instead of doing actual work.

Productivity on the Internet is an illusion. Researchers have found out that once you get distracted it takes an average of 11 minutes to get back to your original level of focus. An Internet connection is a gateway to infinite distraction; there will always be more items in your RSS feed or Facebook feed or NY Times stories to click on. When you don't have the Internet, you might not be able to look up facts or dictionary words but you also won't spend two hours looking at spring break photos on Facebook or down Wikipedia's rabbit hole.

In India, I was really productive in the 18 hours every day that I didn't have Internet, and I'm making plans to maintain that productivity when I get home. I've been training myself to focus - starting with 5 minutes at a time and slowly working up. I canceled my smartphone contract and traded it for a $10 phone (and $15/month contract). I use Freedom, the mac app that disables the Internet more often. I process email while offline; Thunderbird lets messages sit in my outbox and sends them all at once. And maybe when I'm back at CMC I'll work in the middle of the football field, supposedly the only place at CMC without wireless.

I like referring to people who are on surfing binges as vampires - there's something about the way they look up from the screen, startled and slightly guilty, after having lazily sucked information from the terminal for three hours. It's not attractive, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. The Internet is a productivity killer, and it brings out really ugly behavior in people. Don't let it happen to you.

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