I am told that putting articles in list form is click-bait in the internet news age. What is it about computers that has changed the way we think? They have their quite obvious advantages, but a recent experience taught me a few lessons about how mine has affected the way I process information and spend my time.
About four months ago my computer broke. I don’t know exactly how it happened, only that one minute everything was great and the next there was a sudden spark accompanied by the smell of smoke as some vital piece of circuitry consumed itself. It was bound to happen, I suppose. The computer was ancient by any reasonable standard.
It was so old that it was running a version of Windows four generations out of date, no longer capable of being upgraded. It served me just fine, though, and allowed me to read the news, compulsively curate my Amazon.com wishlist, watch movies, and type odd little blog posts. So, even though it had lived a long and happy life, I was quite sad when it gave up the ghost.
After a proper grieving period, the obvious next step would have been to purchase a new computer. I would have been happy to do so, the only problem being that my wife and I currently have five children and they spend all of our money on food and clothing. My wife, ever so intelligent, assures me that food and clothing for our beloved offspring is at least slightly more important than my ability to think up and post clever hashtags online. So for a while, at least, there will be no replacement. Don’t cry for me. It has been difficult but I have learned a few valuable lessons during my time away from my precious electronics.
- That important thing can wait until later. The first emotion I felt when I realized that the hard drive was fried was the terror of the Abyss. I was sinking fast. My hands became clammy, my heart rate fluttered, and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety suddenly became very real. Essentially, I went into full blown withdrawal. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was (and probably am) addicted. Mind you, this whole time, I still had a smart phone safely tucked in my jacket pocket that was capable of achieving what people even 20 years ago would consider well nigh miraculous. I even still knew I had a computer at the office. It wasn’t enough. I needed that computer humming away in its familiar spot.
The pain slowly eased and, after a few weeks I realized that maybe it is possible to survive without unfettered access to a computer after all! The work email, the comments on social media, reading the new, online version of Dappled Things (!), those can all wait until I get to the office in the morning. Or better yet, I can actually personally interact with people at work instead of emailing, I can have coffee with a friend instead of maintaining a superficial, online relationship, and I can read Dappled Things in the print version while lounging in the backyard under the shade of an oak tree. It isn’t that I don’t need a computer or am somehow transcendent over a system in which everybody else is hopelessly mired. It is simply the realization that there are other options. When life slows down, a more human pace is achieved.
- My social life did not implode without social media. It is still possible to speak with people in person. Some might even say that this is better. Not that I object to social media, not at all, its advent has actually helped me stay in much better contact with long distance friends, but we ought to be honest and admit that it does not of its own suffice to maintain an authentic friendship. Commenting online takes place in an unrealistic environment because we can take our sweet time with what we choose to communicate and how we present ourselves. We can literally wait days at a time for a witty rejoinder to percolate for a comment thread. In real life, there is an actual human being who will stare at you with grave concern if you fail to respond in a timely manner, say, within five seconds or so. Face to face, there is authentic interaction, a conversation, if you will. These interactions with all of their pauses, wanderings, interruptions, and body language constitute honest to goodness communication. Social media can augment this but never replace it. I suspect that in our society we are greatly tempted towards contentment with only the latter.
- My life became more leisurely. I’ve always been a steady reader and have always done my best to make time to play with the children. Even if the presence of the computer never overwhelmed those habits, it definitely nibbled around the edges. It is temptingly easy to lose an hour working on cataloguing the itunes music library (Yes, I need help) or get caught in a tangle of fascinating wikipedia links. It’s no problem at all to waste more time than you wanted emailing and playing online games. Comedian Louis CK once made the observation that people seem to be unable to even wait for a few minutes in a grocery store checkout line without pulling out their phones. What ever happened to staring around randomly for a few minutes? This is part of the shopping experience! Same with the computer at home. When it was there, I knew I could always retreat to it for some light diversion to while away the time. Perhaps it became too attractive, more so than lying on the floor and driving cars around the rug with my son. Sometimes these small moments of fatherhood are touching and lovely, sometimes, let’s all admit, they are boring. These are the moments, though, that our children will remember for the rest of their lives. I hope that I do not miss too many of them. Without the computer I find myself, even if only slightly more frequently, reading books after the kids go to bed, playing at the piano, or sitting on the front porch with a drink and watching the rain. Before, I would have retreated to the comfort of mindless internet browsing.
- I probably will still buy another computer. Perhaps modern life is such that we simply require these devices. At their best, they are time-saving, helpful, and irreplaceable tools. Now that I have word processors, I shudder at the thought of handwriting even a single sentence. Think about it, you can go online and accomplish pretty much anything! Research information, find the nearest, best restaurant, check the weather, follow the score of the baseball game as it is in progress, watch almost any movie or television show ever made, and get quick and accurate directions to anywhere your heart desires.
My hope is that in the future I will be able to discipline myself to use the computer as a tool and not allow it to define the way I live my life. Perhaps I really am addicted to the thing. I am told that smartphone and internet addiction is quite real. I don’t mean to mock it. I suspect that the potential to some degree or another to give ourselves up to a virtual world affects all of us. I am thankful for the perspective I have been given by the death of my old computer. Perhaps we would all benefit from at least the occasional, voluntary fast from computers. Take a breath, look around, and experience human life in all its complexity, its joys and sorrows.