The first step is to admit you have a problem, right?
Well, I have a problem with computers or, more specifically, with broadband Internet service: my capacity to wallow in distraction seems almost boundless. I can sit for hours, hopping from site to site, tracking this blog and that, contributing to that discussion thread or the other, reading news stories – including satirical ones – and playing games.
My goodness, I can waste whole days playing games, especially if it’s one of the new ones, rich in story and human interest and short on gun-play. (Gone Home is brilliant, by the way.)
But, out in the real world, there is much to be done! I have classes to teach and students to advise! I have books to read and papers to write! I have a marriage to keep vibrant and children to raise up into freedom and dignity and friendships to cultivate! I have music to play and instruments to practice and bands to organize and gigs to book and dances to, um, dance! I have a household to keep and finances to manage!
And that’s on a slow day!
I am 46 years old, and really have only so many hours left in my life. Can I really afford to fritter away so many of them on a computer, doing nothing much?
No, really, I can’t.
So, what ought I to do?
What I realized this week is that much depends on how I frame the problem.
I had been thinking of it, in part, as a problem with broadband Internet itself: as soon as our household and my office were hooked up to that great fire hose of distraction, my ability to focus on the vital tasks of my life and my career began to decline.
If that’s really the problem, then the solution that suggests itself is a change of bandwidth. I used to joke about going back to dial-up, adopting the motto, “if it’s worth downloading, it’s worth waiting for.”
I have even considered quitting cold turkey, cutting myself off from the ‘net and going back to older ways of doing things.
That’s where the growing momentum of the Internet as a technological system defeats me: like the automobile before it, broadband Internet access has become a necessity, a basic condition for participation in commercial, civic and cultural life, and it certainly has its hooks into academia! That I teach at Georgia Tech, which boasts one of the best wired networks in the world and relies on that network for its basic administrative functions and for communications among faculty, staff and students means I could not work where I work without some Internet access.
Then there’s my family, who are also dependent on the ‘net, and not only for distraction. Public-school students in our city are all but required to use the ‘net for managing and submitting assignments, watching lectures and other instructional videos, and communication with teachers.
So, for me as an individual, given all that I and others have invested in the Internet, there is no going back to the old ways, at least not if I want to remain engaged with the world as it is.
Even the dial-up option would leave me stranded, unable to participate in enterprises that are important to me, because the various functions and documents I need to access have expanded to fill the available bandwidth, such that switching back to dial-up would be more or less the same as cutting of the ‘net entirely.
So, what then?
I had also framed the problem as a matter of my own habits. Indeed, when I complain about the fire hose of distraction coming into my house, other people would tell me the burden is on me to learn some discipline.
(There’s some cruelty in that: “You have a fire hose pointed at your face? Well, you just have to learn to keep your mouth closed, except to take small sips!”)
I have made some efforts in that direction. A little over a year ago, I had brief success in establishing a buffer zone at the beginning and the end of each day, at least half an hour in which I would not look at any sort of screen. I found it did help my focus in the morning to have my attention first turned to things in my immediate environment.
That lasted a month or so before I slipped back into old habits.
I reinstated the buffer zone about a week ago, with about the same success, so far. I’m writing this post on paper with a fountain pen, watching the light come up behind the trees in my back yard.
But, still, I know that habits are fragile and reversible.
How can I reinforce them?
I have in the past tried to reframe the problem as a matter of software: if I change what my computer and my (zero-sum) smart phone can do, I may use them differently.
I quit Facebook some months ago, just before I started this blog; I then joined and subsequently quit Twitter. I have uninstalled (and reinstalled and uninstalled and reinstalled) games and other distractions.
I have tried blocking websites – once using a password like getbacktoworkyoulazyslug – and even tried using programs that cut off Internet access entirely for a set amount of time.
None of those measures proved effective, in part because they were too easily reversible.
During my morning writing session by the back window, a few days ago, I hit on a useful reframing of the whole problem: what if it’s not mainly about bandwidth, or my own feeble character, or about software, but about the physical and spatial relationship between my body and the machine itself?
I have spent much of my life sitting in front of a computer, starting way back in the 1980s when I first had direct access to one in the house in which I grew up.
Sure, it was a TRS-80 Color Computer (with Extended Color Basic!), and the only modem to which my family had access was the kind to which you have to attach the handset of an old AT&T phone, but still I spent hours sitting in front of the screen – a simple color TV used as a monitor – enthralled by pushing the limits of Basic and by a limited supply of early-generation computer games.
(Dungeons of Daggorath, anyone?)
I was then and still am now, from time to time, held in place by the inertia of anaesthetized distraction, compounded by the physical inertia of sitting in a chair. When I park myself in front of a machine, my being there becomes the default condition: it would take energy and will to get up and walk away.
So, I thought last week, what if I turn that around so that not being on the computer is the default condition? What If I put my desktop computer on a standing desk so that it takes energy and will to remain standing in front of the machine, which would place a natural limit on how long I can use it at any one time?
Well, I supposed, my use of the computer would then necessarily be more deliberate, more a matter of completing a single task before going on to do something else.
Using a physical configuration of space and artifacts to enforce a habit is not so unusual. Consider the analogous case of someone on a diet who restricts the kinds of foods available in the house.
The standing desk, as a physical object of a particular design, reminds me of the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour (1992). In one discussion of the way in which artifacts contribute to the stability of social systems, Latour casts artifacts as enforcing programs on people, programs that have a moral force because human beings in effect have delegated to artifacts the task of enforcement in order to accomplish particular goals.
Prescription is the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. In spite of the constant weeping of moralist, no human is as relentless moral as a machine . . . We have been able to delegate to nonhumans not only force as we have known it for centuries but also values, duties, and ethics. It is because of this morality that we, humans, behave so ethically, no matter how weak and wicked we feel we are. The sum of morality does not only remain stable but increases enormously with the population of nonhumans.
For me, at least, a combination of artifacts comprised of a standard (sitting) desk, a comfy chair, a desktop PC and a broadband Internet connection all but enforces the program, stay a while and wallow in distraction . . . or, at least, it fails to enforce any kind of limit or discipline on distraction.
A computer on a standing desk, I hypothesized, would enforce the program, come and use the computer, but don’t stay too long and don’t waste time . . . and, anyway, don’t you have something better to be doing?
Feeling slightly desperate to do something about my distraction addiction, I took the plunge: after a small investment of capital, I now have an inexpensive and slightly industrial-looking standing desk where my conventional sitting desk used to be.
I’ll report back on how the reprogramming goes . . . though I’ll probably write the draft post longhand, with a fountain pen, while looking out at the wide world.
Latour, B. (1992). Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 225-258). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.