This piece was inspired by a short report I read on Big Think, which asked: ‘Does Digital Distraction Stunt Your Creativity?’. You can read it yourself here.
The question in itself is quite interesting to me. I know there are times when I am particularly vulnerable to digital distraction – usually when I have some large, difficult, or simply annoying task to achieve. Writing is a fine example. Writing is hard work for all sorts of reasons. It’s hard to find the right words, not simply because complex realities defy description, but because every word put down is a part of you, part of your identity as a scholar, they represent you, they carry your hopes and aspirations. When writing is going well it can feel like a mystical process is in flow, where the words are simply tumbling off the ends of your fingers. When it is going badly, it feels like you are trying to scrape a fountain pen the wrong way over sandpaper, it jars, it frustrates, it physically hurts. At such times it can be very tempting to take a break, some light relief, and what better way than to simply swap one virtual window for another, and find yourself in the comforting anonymity of the world wide web.
The web has contributed to much transformation in the way we live, work, relate, and relax. As I have written before, here, the web has certainly transformed research, through organising and making instantly available a world of scholarly resources which previosuly would have required arduous hunting among the library stacks, and then cataloguing manually. Nevertheless, with promise comes danger. I think there are several ways in which the internet is a dangerous medium for scholars, and one that requires cautious, reflective, engagement.
Firstly, as the Big Think piece suggests, it does not tend to be a very productive distraction. I know from bitter personal experience that if the first thing you do when you turn on your computer is check your email then your day will be less productive than if you just go straight in and start writing. I think this is one of the reasons why early mornings were always my favourite writing times – early, like 5 or 6am, in my dressing gown, in my home office, which is a little attic room with a sky light and walls of overcrowded shelves. If I started early and started well – i.e. without distractions, I could often turn out 1 or 2 thousand words before lunch. Then I could spend the afternoon catching up with email, researching new resources, and editing and shaping what I’d written that morning. This is all in the past tense for a reason, part of my ongoing sense of doctoral nostalgia, but that’s another story.
Writing is not the only example. I’m currently analysing around 70 interview transcripts for my current project. Now I really enjoy analysis, it is one of the ‘proper’ bits of research, where you really get to engage and try and make sense of this mass of data in front of you. But it’s tough. There’s loads of data. And there is loads you could say about each and every sentence. Therefore it takes a long time and it takes intense concentration. The internet can seem like a perfect way to give yourself a rest every now and then, but I know that once this route is taken, then that concentration will never quite go back to what it was before, and the gaps of productivity in between surfing breaks will get shorter and shorter. Much better to have a little walk around, make yourself a cup of tea (non-caffeinated if this is going to be an all day session), get some fresh air, unplug. Much as I mistrust external forms of discipline, I would be very interested in finding out more about the ‘Freedom’ software referenced in the Big Think piece, which somehow, prevents your computer from tapping into any online resources while you have it running. Much as I feel like this might be philosophically contemptable – a sort of Clockwork Orange-like intervention – I am all too aware of my inability to regulate myself in this regard, so I might just give in to it.
Secondly, the internet is a dangerous place for the kinds of things we can learn on it and the manner in which that learning takes place. Merely having access to a greater quantity of more diverse resources does not necessarily make you better informed. The unverifiable nature of much that comes through the web is certainly something to be wary of for anyone engaging it for scholarly purposes. Then there is the old cliche that ‘less is more’. This can be proved valid when you find yourself with such an excess of resources that your original purpose is lost in the myre. If you are looking to contribute to knowledge then it is essential to define your research questions really closely, and then really narrow your online searches to match your requirements. Otherwise you will end up trying to account for the whole stinking universe and you will drown in it.
Keeping with this second concern, but branching out from the practical need to focus for depth, I am interested in the slightly messier conceptual world of depth, and whether the internet can offer it. I know very little about how our brains work in the language of neurochemisty. But what I do know, or think I know about synaptic exchange, has given me an image of our brains as being a little like an Edwardian telephone exchange, in which a conversation between two sides can only take place if an operator makes a meaningful link between them. Thus I think, brain chemistry, and therefore knowledge, is fundamentally about connections. I find this image holds some water if we apply it to making a scholarly argument. A good focussed argument for a 5000 word paper, for example, really only has to make one point. However, in making one point we have to draw on and link a range of resources and try to connect several ideas together, then we have to piece it together in 5 or 6 moves, which again need to be seemlessly connected. The importance of signposting in academic writing undelines the importance of these connections, they are your telephone operators: ‘this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going, this is how I’m making the transition’. Click. And you’re through.
So, connection. That also seems to be fairly fundamental to the internet. I think you could safely say that it is the dominant metaphor when thinking through the virtual. One requires a connection, once one has a safe, reliable and speedy connection, one can make a world of connections at the merest click of a mouse. And yes, the internet is a great big dizzying world of potential for knowledge. However, I worry about it. I worry that quantity can take over from quality. That the kind of knowledge to be gained from endless skating across the surface of many different debates is rather thin and superficial. And this is the kind of working that the internet seems to encourage. There are always more links, more resources, more chains, more connections. Yet, we rarely land on something that moves a debate beyond, more often finding ourselves moved further across. This of course is not an inescapable state of affairs, but something we have to be very wary of if we are to avoid it and achieve depth of engagement with a given subject.
Lastly, the internet is dangerous because much as it might appear to be an anonymous, private little world of your own, it is not. Perhaps this is something that people are more aware of now that most of us have been exposed to the storm of spam that follows allowing your first Facebook app to access your personal information. Yet we carry on doing it. Online information, far from being ‘merely’ virtual, can be very difficult to conceal, and impossible to kill. That means that if you are representing yourelf online in some way, particularly for occupational purposes, then you’d better be pretty damn careful about what you say. We all say things we regret from time to time. The internet allows those things to come back and bite you.
I would not advise anybody to stay away from the internet as a means to accomplish any of the things that I have written about here. I use Facebook and Twitter, I’m Linked-In, on Google Plus, I have an online research profile, and I have a blog (which is currently distracting me from my ‘real’ work), and I spend hours a day trawling through online databases trying to find new words on my topics of interest. I merely warn those who do so to do so reflectively, and to remember these wise words from Michel Foucault, which I take with me everywhere:
‘Nothing is inherently evil…everything is dangerous’