A Post about a Book about the Internet

When I picked up a copy of The Digital Divide at a conference last fall, I didn’t realize the essays had been published elsewhere, in print and online. As I dipped into it on the plane ride home, I only wondered for a moment if I should have just waited to search for each of the essays and read them in their original contexts. By just a few pages in, I was already thankful that the collection had been curated for me in the particular form of a printed book. It seemed that simply based on my purchase and my subsequent satisfaction with it, perhaps I had already come down on one side of the debate at its core. The articles date from the nineties to 2011, when the book was published, and rather than digging deeply into current debates about the internet and its relationship to culture and social life, the collection offers a historical perspective on the way these debates have changed over the past decade or two. As we wonder about whether social media is helping or hindering our social lives, it helps to be reminded of a time---not particularly long ago, in fact---before it even existed. I have to admit that I find it difficult to remember what was different, or the same, about life before Facebook was invented in 2004.

My favorite essay in the collection is one of the last, “The End of Solitude,” by William Deresiewicz. It is wonderfully poetic in its exploration of the history and evolution of solitude and its role in art, literature, and religion. Deresiewicz begins his argument for the power of solitude this way: “In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity.”

What, you might ask, does all this business about solitude have to do with the internet? Deresiewicz argues that in some ways, our contemporary conception of loneliness—the negative side of the solitude coin—was invented with the help of the internet. He compares this phenomenon to the relationship between boredom and television. Television offers the potential to snuff out boredom and silence. If you like, you can always have a bit of background entertainment filling your living room, restaurant, or airport. But in turn, the potential for constant entertainment breeds a fear of quiet. In the same way, Deresiewicz argues, the internet provides the potential for constant connectivity, and its dark underbelly is a fear of being alone.

Certainly the feeling of loneliness has a much longer history than the internet, and the connectivity of the internet has been, in Deresiewicz’s words, “an incalculable blessing” in helping us to find and communicate with others who share our dreams, interests, and experiences. The relationship between loneliness and the internet is not a question of the chicken or the egg, but rather a shift in balance. As Deresiewicz explains, “not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

As I consume article after article urging us to get away from our screens in order to be more creative, energetic, and productive, I wonder if the underlying charge is to simply create space for solitude, an uncomfortable but valuable state which is easier now than ever to avoid.

I suppose this is part of what drew me to the book as a printed book, rather than as an interactive series of links and comments. While I love letting my curiosity carry me from one link to another, I thought it might be interesting—and it was—to read about the internet, for once, alone.

A sustainable practice

The most effortless project I’ve completed was the writing of my senior thesis, a collection of poetry and translation relating to the book of Genesis. I suppose it’s no coincidence that I was fixating, even then, on beginnings. I spent some time in the summer doing a bit of research, and when I returned to school in the Fall, I had no idea what the actual writing process would look like over the course of the next six or seven months. I’d spent many sleepless nights wringing academic papers from my brain over the previous three years, and I knew I needed a more sustainable process if I was to make it to the finish line, sanity intact and thesis in hand.

In my first meeting with my advisor, he gave me a piece of advice that, at the time, I found funny. In retrospect, I think of it as earth-shattering. He told me to write first thing in the morning.

I must have asked what he really meant by “first thing,” because I remember his insistence: DO NOT brush your teeth, DO NOT eat breakfast, DO NOT get dressed, DO NOT do anything before you sit down to write. OK, you can have coffee. But everything else will get in your way. Just write, first thing.

This advice must have been personal, because, at the time, I didn’t drink coffee. He must have been sharing what worked in his own practice. In any case, I took his advice very seriously, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

I arranged my course schedule so that I had a couple of mornings free during the week, and I did my other work at night. I took his coffee exception to mean that I could choose a couple of my own non-negotiables, as long as I could do them on autopilot.

So for a few mornings a week, before my anxiety or inhibitions could get the best of me—in other words, before I had a chance to get in my own way—I did what I needed to do to feel vaguely human, and then I wrote. Later on, I was editing or rewriting, but the process was the same.

I didn’t start by searching for inspiration or thinking particularly hard about what I needed to do. I just showed up at my table for a couple of hours, did what I knew how to do, and then, for the rest of the day, took care of the business of living. It was like starting the day with an offering to the muses. You can sleep in, I was telling them. I got this.

It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity, in which she emphasizes the importance of simply showing up and doing the work. I also think of the recent New York Times article on working less and accomplishing more when I consider the relatively limited number of hours I spent working in comparison to the amount of material I needed to produce. It was all about the quality of those hours, not the quantity.

Since I’m no longer a student, it’s been a process of trial and error trying to reestablish this sort of practice in my differently arranged life. The peculiar blessing/curse of the student is that she tends to have a great deal of control over her schedule. But even in my post-student life, I am comforted by a sense that the process of setting a goal and actually accomplishing it depends very little on talent or magic or circumstance and very much on creating rituals and habits that support simply showing up and doing the work over the long haul.