Friday, February 24, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Time Spent on the Internet

See previous entries in this series: Introduction; On (Not) Being a Good Reader; On Daily Prayer; On Practicing Sabbath.

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About a month before Ash Wednesday, I was considering what I might give up for Lent. Specifically, I was reflecting on the amount of time I spend on the internet, a regular topic of consternation for me. As I'm sure nearly anyone reading this can appreciate, it is challenging to regulate, in a disciplined and intentional way, one's time spent looking at a computer screen -- much less the shape and purpose of that time, i.e., how much of it is productive or justifiably meaningful, or simply wasted or lost.

A few years ago I "gave up the internet" for Lent, but it was a largely fruitless affair. I made significant exceptions -- email, ESPN, other supposedly necessary websites -- and it only resulted in a climactic post-Easter binge, followed by a direct return to bad habits.

So instead of focusing on Lent, I turned to general usage practices. Even in that realm, though, I've tried and failed any number of times to set limits, boundaries, order to my time online. Sure, I use Freedom when I need to focus on reading or writing; and since my wife and I only own one computer, we have to share it, and that serves as a nice check on hyperlink perpetuity. Moreover, I proudly own the oldest cell phone of anyone I know, as an in principle resistance to the ability to check (or rather, be bombarded by alerts of) email, Facebook, etc. I also leave the computer (a laptop) at home, rather than bring it to class or coffee shop, precisely to facilitate and engender as "unplugged" an existence as possible for a 26-year old doctoral student in 2012.

Nevertheless -- and the force of the caveat cannot be magnified enough -- my life remains seemingly impregnably determined and ordered by a reflexive need to be plugged in, by that learned technological itch that demands habitual scratching. And if it isn't scratched, there comes that off kilter feeling: disconnected, disgruntled, increasingly anxious. You know whereof I speak.

Returning to my initial reflection -- which in itself was the culmination of at least five years of sustained thinking about the issue -- the exacerbating factor was (and is) that this picture of life seems utterly antithetical to the life of scholarship. How can a vocation constituted by reading and interpreting difficult texts, not to mention the hopefully concomitant enjoyment of a life spent in this way, be cultivated alongside an overriding habit that actively works against the sort of patience needed to read, and think, slowly, with care, over long periods of time? How can one, in other words, read even a single book with undivided attention when every 15 minutes involves a glance at the inbox?

This led me to a serious imaginative experiment: What would it take to learn the kind of virtuous habits that would decisively inculcate the ability not to be perpetually plugged in? to be undisturbed by the internet for hours at a time? to be purposefully and meaningfully disconnected -- or, better put, free -- from the besetting temptations of the itchy online trigger finger?

The last month or so has been my attempt, still ongoing, in trying to put this vision into practice. The happy report is that it is actually working, with substantive results.

The obvious qualification at the outset is that my, as it were, Internet Rule of Life is fit to who I am as an individual, to my strengths and weaknesses, temptations and non-issues. But I think it nonetheless helpful to share what has worked for me as something of a template to generate reflection and conversation with others.

The following, then, are my self-given guidelines:

1. No Google Reader. I finally came to realize that a super-aggregator of internet content is, for me, not a servant but a master. Or rather, had become a master, because it implanted the ever-present thought that some website or blog, surely, had updated, and would be all sorts of interesting reading, so why not check? Moreover, an aggregator like Google Reader facilitates the illusion that one can read much more than one is able, leading to one new subscription after another -- hence the ever-unattainable "(0)" that would mark, in theory, no stories unread. (And it if is reached, wait a minute and there'll be more.) I just could not coexist with a program like that and be sane in my online habits.

2. No blogs six days a week. This was the decision I wasn't sure I could actually live up to, given how many blogs I follow and given, however strange a thing it is to say, that I myself "am" a "blogger." However, this specific limitation turned out to be surprisingly easy, and for quite natural reasons: Blogs, at least non-professional ones, don't post new content that often. Besides, how important is it really to be able to be "current" with conversations happening on blogs? If being a week behind is concerning, then that is precisely the attitude this rule is set up to circumvent. And, eventually, to abolish altogether.

3. Only a handful of "regular" daily websites. It wasn't only blogs (and specifically theology blogs) that I gave up six days a week: it was almost everything. I limited myself to half a dozen or so websites that I "allow" myself to check each day, and that's it. (No need to name them except by genre: basically one website alike for news, politics, sports, culture, film, and theology.) This needn't be legalistic: If someone sends me a link, I'll read it; if I need information (the weather, movie times, directions, academic research, etc.), I'll look it up. But the rule is an intensification of #2 by design. There really is, humanly speaking, an infinite amount of worthwhile reading on the internet. And this way I choose at the outset -- like a magazine subscription -- what it is I will read daily, as an acknowledgement of the limited time I have for this kind of reading, combined with an openness to be directed to interesting things by friends and colleagues. Call this the temporal finitude clause.

4. Schedule for online activity. On a normal day, I have three windows available for time on the internet unrelated to work or personal demands. The first is in the morning, before I begin studying: I check my email, Facebook (which for me, unlike others, is not a time-sapper, but a quick skim of what's going on with friends), and the news. I try to limit this to about 20 minutes or less. The second window is lunch: If I'm not eating with others, I'll read articles from my daily websites during that time. Whenever I'm done, though, I'm done with reading on the internet until after dinner. Then it's left to personal discretion whether I ought to be doing something else more worthwhile (relationally, academically, or otherwise), or if it would be good to be online. If so, great; if not, then I keep off.

Without getting even more detailed, these four guidelines constitute my "rule." I have my own handwritten version of it on a small piece of paper taped above my desk.

So how has it been? In a word: fantastic. I am prone to this sort of Big Idea, thought up as a grand reordering of my life in an all-consuming way; so I was cautious in confidence that it would actually work. As was my wife.

But for whatever reason, it has. And it actually hasn't been that difficult. The main challenge was psychological: To accept not only that am I constitutionally unable to read everything that I would like to -- unable, that is, to be utterly and totally up-to-date and in-the-know -- but also to accept that, in fact, I will not read and know everything possible, or even try. (Less convolutedly: I had to disabuse myself of the myth that, even if I "can't" do it, I'll do my best . . . and maybe succeed in the process!) Once I moved past that obstacle, the plan became as liberating as I'd hoped it would be. The bulk of my internet interface has migrated to Saturdays, and even then my appetite is diminishing for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g; just the good stuff, now, please.

Regarding Saturday, I was initially worried that it would become Internet Day, a weekly binge of exactly what I was trying to fast from the other six days of the week. But that hasn't happened either. As I said, the altered quantity and quality of my new ordinary diet is already having swift and happy consequences for what is appealing when the rules are suspended.

Finally, what of the results for my academic life? These, too, have been all to the good, matching my intentions almost exactly. For example, the amount of time devoted to reading actual books has increased manifold, as well as become markedly less schizophrenic. (For five weeks straight, I read consecutively, and without interruption, through I/1 and I/2 of Barth's Dogmatics from 7:15 to 9:45 every morning. Remember, if that does not sound like much of an accomplishment, that I am not a good reader!)

A second result is that I have time in the evening to spend with my wife or friends. I tend to finish by daily school work, or at least my reading, by early afternoon. I am then free to attend class or work on writing projects without anything hanging over my head for the rest of the day, and in the evening to attend to other matters -- again, time with others, or mundane business, or a lecture on campus, or (what do you know?) pleasure reading, online or otherwise. As a related result, then, my time spent reading for pleasure offline has increased, too: my non-novel-reading self is about to finish David James Duncan's whopping 645-page The Brothers K. And that, mind you, while taking four classes in my second semester as a PhD student.

In other words, not bad for a bad reader. And even better for a (recovering?) internet addict, even if the latter only by virtue of generational birth.


  1. This is inspiring. May borrow a bit from your rule. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Google Reader is a form of discipline for me. Most of my interests on the internet are fairly fruitless. But my selection of blogs in the hopper provides a good home-base for my interests in theology and biblical studies. I can always know I'm focusing on more fruitful web usage when I am in Reader.