Thursday morning, early, I was on the road, trying to put an hour and a half of highway between me and technology.
More to the point, I guess, I was trying to put an hour and a half between me and my addiction to technology, the Internet equivalent of a drinker finding a wilderness cabin far enough off the grid and away from temptation to avoid taking that next drink.
Because, more and more, I find I live with the pulse of Internet technology: email, texts, messaging — it’s all easy distraction from anything close to hard work.
And it is a killer of concentration.
Right now, I’m actually away from the daily grind of The Telegram: I still write editorials and columns, but I’m on book leave, finishing a novel, away from the office.
Problem is, novels take plenty of concentration, and living in a constantly wired world pretty much destroys concentration: I find myself flitting back and forth from electronic town to electronic town, never staying anywhere long enough to put down mental roots.
So I went to a place with a single telephone, limited cell coverage and no way to go online. It helps that it’s surrounded by long grass and spruce trees, with the only sounds coming from a distant highway and the wind plucking around the siding.
While I was driving to get there, author Jonathan Franzen was continuing to be chewed up across the Internet — well, chewed up and cheered on — for an essay in The Guardian about how technology is bending our needs.
The shortest possible version? We’re tweeting while Rome burns.
And I agree with him. Here’s a snippet.
“Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction.”
He’s even more direct about that distraction, the world of writing and trying to stay clear of the growing amount of background noise.
This is admittedly a big chunk, but you need the whole thing to catch his argument. (Read the whole thing at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/13/jonathan-franzen-wrong-modern-world)
“Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
“But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement?
“What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
“As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.
“And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (‘Overnight free shipping!’).”
I took philosophy in university, and it was a hard grind. The concepts could be obtuse, and the concentration needed was intense, especially when working with translations from German and, worse, Soren Kirkegaard’s Danish.
I’m still the same person who did all that work — given today’s ability to be distracted by anything from Facebook to a legion of Tweets, I doubt I could manage it.
Heck, I have to drive for miles to be able to edit a novel, my addiction to technology making me my own worst enemy.
I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Why, Franzen, with his piece online, is his own worst enemy too: at 6,400 words, he’s really only preaching to the converted. The Internet twitchers bailed out 100 words in.
Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.