Are We Spending Our Time Online Wisely?
What the Internet gives, the Internet takes.
There’s little question that the web has made our lives more productive. We can work at the office, at home or even on a park bench, so long as there’s good WiFi access. We can Skype or text someone instantly, rather than hoping someone picks up the phone or bothers to transcribe lengthy voice mails. If you need to look something up – say the population of the city of Astana, Kazakhstan – you don’t have to track it down in a library book but just ask Google (the answer is 708,000, by the way.) Like they say, the Internet puts the world at your fingers.
But all that instant global access may be coming at a price. If you can work anywhere, then you can work everywhere, and people are increasingly expecting exactly that. If you always have a smart phone at reach, you can never really turn the phone ringer off for an hour or two of peace. And knowing thousands of new facts is not the same thing as learning, or understanding what they all mean. Once you get a taste, it’s difficult to sip from the fire hose that is the web.
Which makes one wonder: if the Internet gives us freedom, does it take our time?
All this came to mind recently riding home on the Metro, Washington’s subway system, after a day’s work. There was a lot that was unfinished, and the twenty or so minutes of doing nothing but riding the rails helped clarify what needed to be done and how to prioritize it all. Then again, I didn’t really have a choice, because I don’t have a smart phone.
If I did, I might have been like the majority of my fellow passengers, checking emails, updating my calendar, reading the latest headlines or just twiddling time away on a touch screen. Metro cars have always been fairly silent, but these days that’s mostly because everyone seems preoccupied with their little corner of the Internet.
It may sound odd coming from a journalist, but by and large there is very little that can’t wait 20 minutes. Of course there are exceptions, but if we’re being honest, those are fairly infrequent. Ask yourself: do you really need to check your RSS newsfeed before you get home, or reply to that email before you can think about your answer? Is this really how you want to be spending your time?
That’s exactly the question Robert Matuksy wants you to answer every 20 minutes while you’re online. Matusky wrote a simple bit of computer script – you can copy and paste it right here – that, once installed, pauses everything you’re doing on the computer three times each hour with the question “Consider if this is really how I need to be spending my time. Continue?” Answer “yes” and the clock starts over again; answer “no” and the program exits until you start it up again.
It may not sound like a lot, but as pesky programs and irritating message boxes go, this one is pretty smart. As anyone online knows, it’s easy to get lost on the Internet, losing track of tasks, questions and time while hopping link to link to link. Before you know it, an hour of your life can vanish with very little to show for it.
Journalist Nicholas Carr previously discussed with us how the web can act as a giant distraction machine; emphasizing speed and skimming while de-emphasizing deeper thinking and learning. “Things like multi-tasking, hyperlinks…they tend to reduce our comprehension, reduce our learning, reduce our understanding,” says Carr.
Certainly others disagree, but it’s an idea worth considering now and then. As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous, it’s also becoming more invisible, stealing bits and pieces of our time and attention…perhaps without our even being aware of it. Think for a moment: if you can’t remember what you were doing thirty minutes ago online, it probably wasn’t all that worthwhile.
So the next time you click on a link, or open your email, or even browse a blog, stop a moment and ask yourself: is this really how I want to be spending my time?