It’s easy to assail the network of digital distraction we call “the grid,” that siren-like nexus of the Internet, social media, and the smart phone. Using it intelligently is another matter entirely, and an obtainable skill.
In his latest, In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman addresses all the elements of today's information overload, compounded by the rapid, noisy, fragmented nature of our time-driven lifestyles. The distinguished physicist, novelist and essayist, a humanities professor at MIT, is not advocating walling one’s self off so much as learning when to unplug, taking regular mental breathers and cultivating a contemplative habit of mind.
“Almost any way you measure today's speed of life, it's gotten faster,” says Lightman. “One of the measures is simply the walking speed of people. And the speed of communication has increased enormously. Throughout history, the speed of communication has regulated the speed of life.”
First, it’s important to understand thatnot every innovation is an advance, nor that each new item in the technological toolbox need be embraced uncritically.
“We should question all technology in that way,” advises Lightman, whose previous book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, was released in March. “Just because something goes faster doesn't mean it's better. I would venture to guess that the quality of life today is really not higher than it was 100 years ago except for things like the fact we can live longer and we have better medical care. Other than that it would be hard to prove that human happiness is greater now.”
What Lightman calls “free grazing of the imagination,” and the creative energies that emerge from it, are found in play, solitude, and contemplation, more vital than ever in our over-stimulated lives.
“It seems like we don't have time anymore to think about who we are and where we're going, both at the level of the individual and the level of the country as a whole,” he says. “Americans and a lot of people in the West are too taken with instant gratification, and it's interesting to compare our culture with that of the Chinese, who think in terms of centuries. It's a way of thinking that is far beyond what the U.S. is able to do.”
The Puritan or Protestant work ethic's hold on the American ethos is such that the idea of waste of any kind, especially time, is abhorrent. But “waste” is a malleable term.
“When I talk about 'waste' it's slightly ironic. What I mean is time that is spent without a definite goal, without a schedule, without being plugged in. And of course that includes things like having coffee with friends or taking walks in the woods or sitting quietly with one's own thoughts—anything that is not goal-directed,” he explains. “A lot of great creations of human beings in science, technology, and the arts have come from people that were just letting their minds run freely. They weren't concentrating on projects or deadlines. They were just letting the wheels spin.”
Lightman is not immune to the seductive power of the grid, or its addictive quality. It’s not that easy to disengage, or to resist a technological entreaty when everyone around you seems absorbed. But there's no small irony in the fact that we're witnessing increased isolation in a hyper-connected world.
“That's one of the problems with the wired world. Superficially it appears we are more connected than ever before but actually we are more isolated because we begin inhabiting this virtual world in which text messages take the place of face-to-face meetings with people,” Lightman says. “Teenagers feel more lonely and depressed than they had in previous years and psychologists have interpreted this as one of the results of the isolation and fear of not keeping up that is caused by social media and the Internet.”
Our remarkable technologies can do many wonderful things, says Lightman, but they do not possess a mind, or values. Humans do.
“And it's the way we use technology that imparts values. We can use technology in a way that sucks up all of our free time. We have to think more carefully about what we're doing, and one of the messages of the book for me is that we need to stop and think about where we're going rather than rushing headlong into the 21st and 22nd centuries and having no time to look out the window.”
Bill Thompson is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina.