Tak­ing a break from the in­ter­net could do us all some good

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - GENE LYONS eu­gene­lyons2@yahoo.com

PEO­PLE OF­TEN FAIL TO DE­TECT IRONY IN NEWS­PA­PER COLUMNS, AND ONLY RARELY IN EMAILS. MIS­UN­DER­STOOD TEXTS MUST CAUSE DOZENS OF HOMI­CIDES.

Among other ec­cen­tric­i­ties, I do not pos­sess a smart­phone and have never wanted one. It’s bad enough that I spend my work­ing hours flit­ting around the in­ter­net like an over-caf­feinated spar­row with­out car­ry­ing Google in my pocket.

If I need to check the weather in Gal­way, Ire­land, or An­drew Ben­in­tendi’s 2017 bat­ting aver­age, it can wait un­til I get back to my desk. I’ve even been known to turn off my an­ti­quated, steam-pow­ered flip phone to es­cape its clamor.

Dear Na­tional Weather Ser­vice: I am aware that we’re hav­ing a del­uge, and I know to re­main on high ground un­til it’s over. Like the dogs, I can hear the thun­der. I don’t re­quire in­ces­sant elec­tronic warn­ings any more than they do. Peo­ple dumb enough to drive into Rock Creek when stumps are wash­ing down­stream won’t pay at­ten­tion any­way.

Now then, where was I? Oh yeah, smart­phones. The other day I no­ticed three teenage girls walk­ing to­gether down the side­walk, all sep­a­rately ab­sorbed in their lit­tle glow­ing screens. If one had plunged into an open man­hole, would her friends have no­ticed? You see kids ev­ery­where th­ese days, slumped in pub­lic places madly typ­ing with their thumbs.

Tex­ting strikes me as maybe the least con­ve­nient means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion since smoke sig­nals. Never mind that my hands are too big for thumb-typ­ing. Peo­ple of­ten fail to de­tect irony in news­pa­per columns, and only rarely in emails. Mis­un­der­stood texts must cause dozens of homi­cides.

Plus, the po­lice can sub­poena them.

Mainly, though, I need to avoid the in­ter­net for a sub­stan­tial amount of time each day to avoid what some peo­ple call “in­for­ma­tion sick­ness” — a patho­log­i­cal state in­duced by spend­ing too much time on­line.

This has noth­ing to do with be­ing a techno­phobe. To me, the most con­se­quen­tial in­ven­tion of the 21st cen­tury is the dig­i­tal TV recorder, which al­lows one to watch movies and sports com­mer­cial-free. Par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the elec­tion sea­son, the thing is a god­send.

Se­ri­ously, though, the in­ter­net has been a great boon to peo­ple in my line of work. For a book­ish fel­low who feels claus­tro­pho­bic in li­braries, it’s been lib­er­at­ing. The other day a Face­book friend posted an At­lantic ar­ti­cle by Ni­cholas Carr about the per­ils of work­ing on­line.

“The web has been a god­send to me as a writer,” he ex­plained. “Re­search that once re­quired days in the stacks or pe­ri­od­i­cal rooms of li­braries can now be done in min­utes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hy­per­links, and I’ve got the tell­tale fact or pithy quote I was af­ter.”

But par­tic­u­larly for those of us with what the late John Leonard called “800-word minds,” i.e. colum­nists who value pithi­ness above all else, the in­ter­net can also be a trap.

“Over the past few years,” Carr frets, “I’ve had an un­com­fort­able sense that some­one, or some­thing, has been tin­ker­ing with my brain, remap­ping the neu­ral cir­cuitry, re­pro­gram­ming the mem­ory. My mind isn’t go­ing — so far as I can tell — but it’s chang­ing. I’m not think­ing the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m read­ing.

“My con­cen­tra­tion of­ten starts to drift af­ter two or three pages. I get fid­gety, lose the thread, be­gin look­ing for some­thing else to do. I feel as if I’m al­ways drag­ging my way­ward brain back to the text.”

Mine too. Partly, I know, it’s age. It’s not be­cause of the in­ter­net that I for­got the word for a small, shelled an­i­mal I needed for the punch­line of a joke. My bea­gles some­times chased them. But if I couldn’t sum­mon the word “ar­madillo,” I did re­mem­ber ex­actly where to find my copy of “Arkansas Mam­mals.” Prob­lem solved.

On­line, how­ever, con­cen­tra­tion comes hard. “Ding!” There’s an email. “Bloop!” Some­body wants to ar­gue on Face­book. A Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle links to some­thing in The At­lantic. Then on­ward to Mother Jones, the Ir­ish Times, what­ever. By the time I make it back to the orig­i­nal piece, I’ve for­got­ten what it’s about and need to start over. Or not.

Carr thinks it’s a sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment akin to the print­ing press. I’m not so sure, be­cause it’s still read­ing and writ­ing. I’ve def­i­nitely no­ticed glib self­as­sur­ance creep­ing into po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ism writ­ten by young­sters with lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal con­text.

An­other old-timer’s com­plaint. Be­sides, there’s an easy fix. Shut the fool thing off at 4 p.m. Take the dogs for a walk along the river. Re-en­ter the phys­i­cal world. We reg­u­larly en­counter deer, beavers, ground­hogs, ducks, pel­i­cans, herons, hawks, even the oc­ca­sional bald ea­gle. Any day now, Canada geese will come honk­ing down­river in gi­ant V-shaped flocks.

Our af­ter­noon walk is of­ten when my wife fills me in on the joys and sor­rows of friends and fam­ily, gleaned from in­ter­ac­tions with her loyal army of girl­friends.

Back home, there’s even time for read­ing ac­tual books.

The in­ter­net’s just a tool; it doesn’t have to be a way of life.

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