Doubtless, by now you’ve seen the latest South Park episode. The one where Stan Marsh literally gets sucked into Facebook? (click here to see the episode!)
Aside from this episode’s extreme Cool Factor — due to the superb incorporation-slash-homage of TRON — it’s also excellent social satire. I recently saw a statistic that said if Facebook was a country, it would be the fifth most populace country in the entire world. There are almost more people on Facebook than there are in the entire United States of America. That’s a colossal number of people spending a colossal amount of time in front of their computers doing… What, precisely?
I’m old enough to remember the Old Days when we dialed up to local or regional Bulletin Board Systems — then known as BBSs. Back then, e-socializing was something of an underground, cutting edge kind of thing that only the dorkiest and the nerdiest among us did. Most people could not have logged on — to anything — if their lives depended on it. And the closest anyone came to “poking” or “friending” or “checking status” was in the form of a phone call or, more likely, sticking an elbow in their ribs in the halls at school, or the break room at work.
Not anymore. The electronicized lifestyle has arrived full-force, and with platforms like Facebook servicing an exponentially-expanding number of users every day, it seems like the majority of the people on planet Earth will be connected over the internet by the time this decade is out.
But is that a good thing? As South Park points out — in that wonderfully not-so-subtle South Park style — what can be said about a form of human communication that does much to de-humanize the process.
More importantly, what are we doing with our time? Where are the hours going? What kinds of things are we killing in our lives when we elect to spend our waking moments checking web pages?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. I don’t hate the internet and I don’t want to preach the Luddite gospel of throwing all our technology into the landfill and going back to the 19th century. That’s not only impossible, it’s impractical. But in my own life, I do have to wonder whether or not I’ve got a real problem. Because the truth is, I do spend a lot of time on-line. And I mean a lot of time on-line. Have been spending a lot of time on-line for years, in fact.
In one of my first posts on this blog, I broke down — roughly — the hours I guesstimated I’d spent on-line:
Assume that I’ve spent a minimum of two hours on the internet, per day, over the last ten years. I realize that on some days it was far, far more than that, and on some days far less, but in the aggregate, I believe two hours per day is about right. So that’s 2 hours per day x 365 days per year x 10 years = 7,300 hours. Wow. Look at that. 7,300 hours divided by 24 = 304.16 days, or the better part of one whole year kicking around the InterToob.
That was one year ago. Since then, I’ve added an additional (guesstimated) 730 hours to the total. Though I suspect it’s much more than that, because I know fully well there have been some days where my on-line activity hasn’t been limited to a mere two hours.
Most of that activity has been reading. Blogs, chat boards, articles and threads. Some of it has been writing, albeit not of the productive sort — meaning, not fiction, but instead indulgent blathering like what I am doing now. The rest of that time has been spent watching YouTube or surfing for graphics or images or audio and video content of one sort or another. My, isn’t Amazon’s MP3 downloader a terribly amazing thing? So much music, right at the click of a mouse. And priced back to the days when you could get an album on cassette tape for $7!
But I digress.
Again, I am not a Net Hater. Those 8,000+ hours I’ve spent on-line the last 11 years weren’t all a waste. No.
But they weren’t of huge benefit, either.
Yes, I have communicated with many fascinating people and I value very much the connections I have made — because without the internet most of those connections might not have been possible. I also do not deny that many of those hours were of a pure, recreational sort: unwinding after — or during — a tough day at work, or when I needed to let my brain thaw out after solving a tough technical issue, spending too much time on dry schoolwork for college classes, and so on and so forth.
But what do I have to show for the time spent? Really? And how much has the internet become my master, and I its servant?
More and more, studies show that compulsory and addictive internet behavior is a bona fide problem. At work, at home, at school, for adults and teens and even children. People spending so much time checking mail and blogs, and playing games like fantasy sports and e-poker, surfing YouTube and MySpace, that their real lives — the tangible aspects of being human — go by the wayside. They literally live their lives electronically, devoting more waking hours to electronic socialization and virtual tasks than they do to actual socialization and actual work that needs to be done.
Again, I am no saint in this regard. As my wife can tell anyone, I am an e-social dork of the first order. Almost everybody I call a friend is someone I either met originally on-line, or someone I met in-person but now interact with largely through the internet. I burn a lot of minutes every day engaged in e-banter that, while fun in the moment, doesn’t result in any lasting progress on any projects in my life that truly matter.
A couple of months ago I took a neat little one-day time management seminar at work which spoke to the issue of internet surf issues — as they applied to getting things done — and I could tell from that class that much of the electronic foolerization I engage in is of the “avoidance” variety. Ergo, I am doing something on-line that feels “busy” in order to avoid something I should be doing in the real world, but don’t want to be doing. Sometimes it’s something as simple as cleaning the cat box. Other times, it’s more important stuff — the kinds of things that come back and bite me later because I put them off too much, for too long.
Usually, I tell myself I’ll get a handle on it and make a change. But too often I let these promises to myself evaporate the moment I get up in the morning, because my habits are so deeply ingrained it feels positively alient trying to break them. Checking mail, checking blogs and boards, etc, etc, is so much a part of my routine that when I actually force myself to stop — my brain kind of goes, “Whaaa?” and then I am stuck figuring out what the hell else am I going to do, if I can’t spend hours on the web?
Once upon a time, I knew how to work and play without being on the computer. Many years ago. I’m long overdue for recapturing some of that. Specifically not clicking the next link and not surfing to the next blog and not allowing myself to “avoid” via a virtual world where a person could spend an entire lifetime — busily engaged — and accomplish almost nothing of import.
Again, I am not a web hater. But I do sometimes hate it a lot when I let the web take over my time use — to the detriment of valuable projects which need doing.
EDIT TO ADD: Georg Pedersen did this hilarious web comic (click here to see it) wherein he perfectly illustrated my typical “cycle,” with good intentions too often being badly derailed by interweb busy-tude. I can burn hours on the web without giving it a second thought, but too much of this over days and weeks and months… I start to get flat-out tired of myself and tired of my habits! It’s not fun anymore. It’s a problem. One I’d very much like to solve.
Like I said at the top of the article, South Park tackles the issue with sardonic style and brilliance (click here to see the episode!) and I applaud Matt and Trey and Co. for their effort. It sometimes takes making us laugh hardest at ourselves, to make us realize that we’ve gotten off the right track.
EDIT TO EDIT TO ADD: I had almost forgotten about the South Park Grapes of Wrath parody episode! Laughed my butt off the first time I saw it last year, and it still makes me laugh my butt off now. Social satire at its finest. “All right Internet, what do you want from us??”