Put away the smart­phone and take a look at what’s around you

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - Gene Lyons Arkansas Times

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 over­caf­feinated 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.

Now then, where was I? Oh yeah, smart­phones. The other day I no­ticed three teenaged 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. Dur­ing the elec­tion sea­son, this 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.

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.

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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