James Sturm, the cartoonist, continues to post about his experience going cold turkey from the Internet. (He writes up his accounts and has someone else send them in to Slate for publication.) “Cutting myself off from the Internet hasn’t been easy,” he confesses in his latest missive from the offline world. “The Web had burrowed deeper into my domestic life than I’d realized.” But his isolation from the Net’s realtime stream of distractions has brought a burst of creativity and productivity:

One benefit of being offline so far is that I am drawing a lot more than I was before. I knew committing to do this column would force me to produce, but I am heartened by how seamlessly my time spent connected to the Internet has become time spent drawing. In the last two weeks, I’ve already filled up a 40-page 4″x6″ photo album (I purchase these in 99-cent stores) with watercolor paintings. This work seems to foster patience (I literally have to wait for the paint to dry), whereas on the Web, I was a hyperactive child with zero attention span.

There’s been much written about how the Web provides new opportunities for people to express themselves. That’s true, and welcome. But the Web is also an enormous global timesink, sucking up massive amounts of time that might have gone into more productive, thoughtful, and fulfilling activities. It’s difficult to measure the cost of this wasted time, because it’s impossible to know what people might have done if they weren’t surfing and tweeting and youtubing and huluing and foursquaring and emailing and IMing and googling and etc. The Web often gives us the illusion of having an incredibly diverse set of pursuits when it’s really narrowing the scope of our thoughts and activities. There is still a whole lot more that people can do offline than online – something that’s easy to forget as we peer into our screens all day.

James Sturm’s experience should give us all pause. What might we be accomplishing if we weren’t tethered to the Net?

13 thoughts on “Realtimesink

  1. KiltBear

    Q: “it’s impossible to know what people might have done if they weren’t surfing and tweeting and youtubing and huluing and foursquaring and emailing and IMing and googling and etc.”

    A: Watching TV

  2. Bio

    But how does he know his drawings exist unless he’s uploaded them to the web and had someone comment on them?

  3. Nick Carr

    A: Watching TV

    In some cases, yes, but not in most. The average time that people spend watching TV, in both US and Europe, has been going up steadily throughout the Web era. The idea that the time people spend online comes out of time they would have otherwise devoted to TV viewing is largely a fallacy, if a pleasant one.

    It’s revealing, in this regard, to hear Sturm describe how the Net had been increasing, not decreasing, his viewing of TV programming:

    Up until the moment I disconnected, I was on a serious online bender. College basketball’s March Madness intensified my Internet madness. All of this year’s games were streamed live, and I was unable to tear myself away from my laptop.

    As more TV programming becomes easily and continuously available on all our networked devices, it seems likely that the Net will actually push us to consume more TV, not less.

  4. Courtney

    I disagree that the internet merely replaces the TV as a mode of distraction. The internet is far more addictive and “timesucking” than TV, particularly because it is so much more pervasive. I’m a college student and the internet has completely ruined the attention spans of people my age in a way TV never did to generations past — because the internet is accessible all the time via laptops and cell phones, whereas TV is watched primarily in a home. So many students these days sit in lecture halls on their laptops open, typing away under the pretense of taking notes while actually scanning Facebook updates, online shopping, checking e-mails, or even watching YouTube videos on mute (seriously). Rarely can a 20-something year old make it through a conversation without sending a text message of checking his or her phone. Sitting in on a college class or walking around a college campus is all the evidence one needs to show the fragmented, unfocused attention spans that are being conditioned by use of the Internet.

    Yes, it is true that the internet has opened up new modes of expression and ways of connecting, communicating, and gathering information; but from what I observe of other people my age, it used far less for these tools than it is as a “global timesink,” as Carr puts it. It is true that the Internet has become the preferred way of wasting time over watching TV, but that does not mean it is an equal replacement; honestly –and as ridiculous as it sounds to say this– the type of attention TV demands is even more sustained than what occurs while web surfing. Many people I know can’t even watch a TV show all the way through anymore without checking something on the web, and get that antsy feeling to check what a blog is saying about the show or look up some trivial factoid. TV is increasingly failing to hold people’s attention, because TV doesn’t supply the same “quick wins,” constant updates, or user-controls that people are becoming more and more accustomed to.

    It is simply false, in my opinion, that the internet is merely the newest thing people turn to to pass the time. It seeps into more areas of life than any type of leisurely distraction before it, and is far more influential on how we mediate our attention throughout our days than TV ever was. TV was contained. The Internet is everywhere.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    I was going to write a long comment, strongly dissenting from the post.

    Then I decided it would be a negative-return endeavor, and to spend the time offline instead.

    So “What might we be accomplishing if we weren’t tethered to the Net?” – in one specific case, the answer is “more housecleaning”. I leave it up to the readers to decide if the world is better off (I probably am better off, but not for the reasons in the post).

  6. ErikJonker

    I am the first to agree that internet use can have consequences on your personal effectiveness, efficiency or quality of work (both negative or positive). However for all human activity a person needs to contemplate whether it’s the best activity at that specific time. The internet is just another part of human civilization/culture. Just like watching television, gardening, fishing, visiting a pub, work etcetera. I also become very creative when i stop working (it’s called holiday ;-). Therefore i find the discussion about “not being connected to the internet” as relevant as a discussion about taking time off from work or going on a sabbatical, which would be nice actually.

  7. Christopher Bird

    With regard to the TV viewership going up, I wonder how much of that is viewership of just the TV, or if it is TV inconjunction with other screen based activities.

    It is pretty easy to time slice most of what is on TV – especially when the advertisements are on. So in my house as internet useage rises so does TV usage.

    Internet access is somewhat freeing because it does allow so many things at once. While writing this response, I have heard news headlines, and enjoying my morning tea, have checked the outside temp (by looking at the thermometer through the window), smelled the rain on the flowers in the garden though the open window and in the background planning the sequence of events for the cookout party we are hosting in about5 hours.

  8. KiltBear

    Nick, what is funny is that I find your response supportive of my position; not contrary to it.

  9. Historymaking101

    I agree wholeheartedly with nick and courtney. I would never dedicate my time spent at least partially active, chatting, browsing, and typing before a sceen to completely inactive staring. Seth, if you feel that more housecleaning is necessary and you are apt to be distracted from it by something that you find more intrinsically pleasing, you will continue to find distractions as long as there are options and housecleaning exists on your to do list.

  10. Kelly Roberts

    It’s cute that Sturm has the luxury of being completely offline. Many of us don’t. While I agree that the internet can be a colossal time suck, I find this “experiment” a little disingenuous. Also, nobody who lives for Tweets and/or Facebook updates would be reading Nietzsche or learning cello concertos if the internet were to suddenly disappear.


    Interesting. For the last month or so, I’ve made it a point to not turn on the PC on Saturday. As the line goes from so many Chick Flicks: “it’s so liberating”. Really. As to Courtney’s observation, the destruction of the attention span will be the death of our civilization.

    But that’s Nick’s point, and the reason, I’d wager, why we all stop by here now and again.

  12. Kennethkrabat

    @ErikJonker: you said “I also become very creative when i stop working (it’s called holiday ;-). Therefore i find the discussion about “not being connected to the internet” as relevant as a discussion about taking time off from work or going on a sabbatical, which would be nice actually.”

    This could be construed as a simple, non-essential statement, but for me it turns everything upside down! Hits the nail on the head, actually: I DO believe that I am working all the time I am online. I work to promote my art (I’m a poet), I work to show I am worthy of attention, I work to gather information, I work to be surprised by unasked for information (I don’t have much education and need my daily jumpstarts to get my synthesis’ going), I work to find amusement and entertainment (I don’t have a TV), I work to keep my computer up to date, I work to maintain my blog and website, I work to stay in touch with friends, collegues, family, and people with interesting points of view or speciel knowledge, I work All The Time, except when I prepare some food, take a bath, or sleep. Even watching a film or download on the computer is work to adjust screen, image, codec etc. Being online means you do everything you do. Nobody does it for you. Nothing is really static and oneway. Everything demands interaction. And THIS is work!

    I need a vacation from all this Work. But honestly, I don’t know what that would be, except analog world – gardening, concert, visit with loved ones without computer, pub crawl, lying on my back without sleeping, reading. Which is also all about interaction…

    Maybe the word should be Variety. I need to vary my input. Be less in control, less in interaction soly to satisfy MY needs.

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