On Productivity and Absorption

So, Al bought an iPad yesterday. Don’t ask me how I didn’t see that one coming, because Al buys practically every gadget that comes along and has a particular affinity for tiny computers. But since he’s not an Apple nerd in particular and has so far resisted the urge to buy an iPhone, when he said “Let’s go look at the iPad,” I actually believed we were only going to look. You’d think I just met the guy.

Anyway, it is indeed a cool little device. And what I like about it is pretty much what Laura Miller talks about in her review here — it’s terrific for consuming all sorts of media – but because I wasn’t excited enough to read a million reviews before it was released, I didn’t realize some people thought that was a bad thing.

Between being a youngish (emphasis on the “ish”) person and having a gadget geek husband (with a job that pays well enough for him to be one),  I already consume practically all of my media via small, portable computers. Music comes from iPods and internet radio, not CDs and a stereo. We no longer have a proper TV or a cable subscription, and I can’t tell you the last time either of us bought a DVD — we mostly watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon on Demand and the like on our laptops or via a Roku box hooked up to a projector. And since I got a Kindle, I’ve pretty much stopped buying paper books unless they were written by friends or aren’t available as e-books.  (Also, you probably wouldn’t have guessed this, but I read the internet a little bit every now and again.) As Laura says, a laptop can do all those things, but for various practical and emotional reasons, she’s so far found the iPad preferable for non-work-related media consumption. I think I would too. After Al and I had messed around with it for a while yesterday, my overall impression was, “That’s a really nice little entertainment delivery device” — like a TV or a stereo or an e-book reader, except all of those and much more. Which is kind of awesome.

But I forgot that nobody’s supposed to be entertained without an opportunity to respond anymore, so apparently, just being able to watch TV and movies, listen to music, play games and read books, magazines, newspapers and the entire internet on one device that does all those things pretty damn well is not good enough. (Not that you can’t interact with a lot of the above on the iPad, but it’s not always as easy as it is on a laptop.) So this paragraph of Laura’s really hit me:

The iPad may not be ideal for what the tech industry calls “productivity,” but it’s well-suited for the purpose I had in mind: absorption. Even the most creative individuals will tell you that they have to spend some time simply soaking up the world around them, including the work of other creators, or ultimately the well runs dry. Much techno-utopian rhetoric implies that devoting your whole attention to someone else’s creation, sans interactivity, is necessarily a sad, incomplete, merely passive experience. Not only is that incorrect, it reflects certain troubling psychosexual attitudes about surrender and control that I don’t even want to get into here. When people complain nowadays about not being able to think or read as deeply as they used to, they’re not just acting like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies: They’re noticing a genuine lack of substance, the threadbare sensation of living in a culture where everyone’s talking and nobody’s listening.

I love technology, generally speaking, and I don’t like people who are all “Oh no! The internet is killing genuine human experience!” But I also don’t like people who think that entertainment or art without a high level of interactivity is necessarily inferior to the new kind. That’s a whole other post, but for now, let’s just say that as someone who lives much of my life online, I’m actually finding it makes me appreciate passive media consumption — as Laura puts it, listening – even more.

Al and I spent last week in Toronto, where I lived about 2/3 of my adult life to date.  Crossing the border meant the roaming charges were obscene, so we both turned off everything but the phone parts of our phones. Which meant that for 8 days, we couldn’t e-mail, update Twitter or Facebook, end an argument by looking something up on Wikipedia, or read random internet shit unless we were actually in our hotel room with our computers. Now, everyone who witnessed the Sandra Bullock shitstorm knows I was online plenty last week — but I was also offline a LOT more than usual. Because these days, I am used to being online whenever I’m on public transit, when I’m out for dinner (yes, I’m that rude asshole, at least when I’m with my rude asshole husband), when I’m waiting for a movie to start or a friend to show up, etc. So when I realized I’d been out for hours and had no idea what was going on in comments on the Bullock post, for instance, I’d have a moment of panicky frustration before I remembered oh yeah, IT WILL STILL BE THERE WHEN I GET HOME.

I went more than 30 years without owning a smartphone, but it did not take long for me to become disturbingly dependent on one. And living without all those extra features for a week made me really conscious of how frequently that takes me out of the moment. Or, more precisely, it puts me in a different moment — I don’t think constant internet access makes you fail to be present or engaged with your own life, as some would argue, but it can mean a lot of your life takes place in your head more than your body.

Sometimes, that’s a wonderful thing, especially for people who for various reasons can’t be physically present everywhere they might like to be, or who find it much easier to be social this way. But for me, the blessing and the curse of it is, I spend much more of my life than I used to thinking about what I’m going to say next. I’m composing a comment in response to what I just read instead of sitting with it; I’m having “chats” with friends where there can be no pleasant silences without one of us wondering if the other is still there; if I’m observing the world around me, half the time I’m thinking, “How do I make this a funny tweet?” When I was writing for Broadsheet, I read other feminist blogs desperately looking for fodder, rather than just taking it all in because it’s smart and interesting — which is exactly what got me interested in them and made me want to start my own in the first place.

All that thinking up something to say gets fucking exhausting. Which is ultimately a big part of why I gave up daily writing for Salon, and why I’ve been so absent around here for so long. (After a day’s work, I’m supposed to think up even more things to say?) And one of the things that made me realize I needed to make a change was that I became obsessed with TV. Like I said, we don’t have cable or a proper TV, and part of the reason for that is because we just weren’t watching enough to bother. It wasn’t a big part of our lives. But over the last few months, I would finish work and just want to sit there for hours watching Hulu/Netflix/Amazon stuff — whatever was available to stream and looked remotely interesting to me. I’ve found a few shows I really love that way (Leverage, In Plain Sight, Better off Ted, the sadly long ago canceled Kidnapped), but I also watched a hell of a lot of crap TV, two straight seasons of 21 Jump Street in a weekend and about a million episodes of Law & Order I’d already seen. Because all I wanted to do after thinking up shit to say all day was sit there and let someone else tell me a story that was easy to follow and demanded no response.

I really do love writing online and talking to other people about what they’re writing and what I am. But man, I also really do love sitting on my ass and letting someone else do all the thinking. I didn’t realize how much I missed that when I was in my honeymoon phase with the blogosphere and totally delighted by all these new avenues for interaction with enormous numbers of people.

I also love reading and writing fiction, neither of which I’ve been doing much of all this time; another reason I gave for quitting is that I’m trying to get back into writing a novel. But getting into the mental space for that involves reading a lot of other people’s work, as Laura notes, as well as sitting with my own work and getting no immediate feedback. It involves a hell of a lot more offline time, absorbing time, listening time — listening to other people and to myself far more closely than I can when I’m writing to deadline every day — so it’s a surprisingly big adjustment, considering it’s what I spent most of my time doing just five years ago. And meanwhile, I don’t want to fall off the radar completely with my nonfiction and online stuff, so I’m still taking the occasional paid opportunity, trying (or thinking of trying) to blog here more, tweeting, commenting and working on personal essays that could go in a book. Which means not writing or reading much fiction, unless I can figure out a good balance.

That’s what I’m trying/hoping to do right now. It’s too early to really say how that’s going yet. But I’ve written a bit of fiction without checking e-mail every ten minutes, I’m reading more books and watching less TV, and that week without a smartphone was surprisingly instructive. It will all still be here when I get back.

I travel a lot, usually with my Kindle and netbook. And I usually work while I travel. When I first considered whether I might want my own iPad — thinking mostly of traveling with it — I thought, “It would be nice to have everything on one device*, but I don’t think I’d like working on it.” Right now, though, I’m thinking that’s exactly why I might want one. Because someday, I might take a real vacation again, go somewhere and not work at all, just explore and observe and maybe passively consume some entertainment on the plane or in the hotel. Just like I did until a few years ago, always carrying several paper books and maybe a cell phone that didn’t do anything else along with me. I’m probably too far gone to want to go more than a day or two without internet access at all, and I’m okay with that.** But I love the iPad precisely because it reverses the netbook’s priorities — it is ideal for absorption, not productivity. And if my TV binge taught me anything, it was that I need to work more absorbing into my life if I don’t want to go completely off the rails.

So yeah, I kind of want one. Probably won’t get one any time soon, because they ain’t cheap. But it is a really cool little entertainment delivery device. And I think that’s all the recommendation it needs.

Also, if you don’t see me around here? It’s generally safe to assume it’s because I’m feeling the need to do more listening than talking. That’s all.

*Yeah, I could read Kindle books on my netbook, but I really don’t like that as much.

**Unless someone wants to offer me a free week on a beach somewhere I can’t possibly get it. I would take that, just for the record.

Posted in Fat

87 thoughts on “On Productivity and Absorption

  1. But over the last few months, I would finish work and just want to sit there for hours watching Hulu/Netflix/Amazon stuff — whatever was available to stream and looked remotely interesting to me. I’ve found a few shows I really love that way (Leverage, In Plain Sight, Better off Ted, the sadly long ago canceled Kidnapped), but I also watched a hell of a lot of crap TV, two straight seasons of 21 Jump Street in a weekend and about a million episodes of Law & Order I’d already seen. Because all I wanted to do after thinking up shit to say all day was sit there and let someone else tell me a story that was easy to follow and demanded no response. I really do love writing online and talking to other people about what they’re writing and what I am. But man, I also really do love sitting on my ass and letting someone else do all the thinking.

    This entire post, which is off the chain btw, sums up my reason for doing my H:LOTS project and taking the job I have now. Blogging feels disposable, though I do enjoy it. While I am not particularly topical – to be flashproof – I don’t get a sense whatever thoughts I’m clacking about pens or Patinkin are going to stuff of family legacy. I don’t think my grandkids are gonna be like, “Nana Snarks, tell us about your blog.” whenever I come to visit them on Mars.

    This was an incredible post.

  2. A lovely post.
    It’s interesting that you see the iPad as helpful specifically as a device for ‘not working’, because I had been contemplating buying specifically *for* working. In the last couple of years, reading quickly and extensively (news, blogs, etc.) on a laptop (now a netbook) has become second nature, and I find it easier on my not-too-good vision than reading paper books. As a grad student, I’m finding it so hard to make progress on my reading for my comprehensives and my other research, that I was hopeful that I could transfer my ability to remain glued to myriad distractions on my computer to actually reading the content that I need to.

    But then I find out that the iBooks application has no feature for underlining/highlighting and marginal annotation (and the device does not even come with a stylus). Hear that, Mr. Jobs? That’s the sound of thousands and thousands of students and scholars all putting their credit cards back into their wallets, iPads unpurchased.

  3. The feeling you describe, of constantly thinking about what to say next, reminds me of what happens to me when I carry a camera around. Suddenly I stop just enjoying my surroundings, instead I’m constantly on the lookout for beautiful images to capture. It can be quite exhausting. Not to mention a distraction from just enjoying myself.

    Fortunately, I don’t make my money by taking pictures. So I can just leave it if that deels better.

  4. Your post strikes a chord with me, because I’ve been re-reading “In Praise of Slow” by Carl Honore, which is all about the “Slow” movement globally. In the book, Honore makes the point that we live in a world which insists on everything happening all at once, faster and faster and faster, and that one of the things humans need in order to be able to cope with the life we’re living is the chance to stop and reflect now and again.

    My field of interest is IT, but even though I’m fond of the field and the products it creates, I’m almost a luddite when it comes to technological gadgetry. I’ve only owned a mobile phone for about two or three years, and I use it purely as a phone; I have a laptop which spends its time being the substitute for a desktop PC (it sits on a cake rack with a keyboard, monitor, mouse, USB hub and speakers plugged into various orifices, and it hasn’t been used as a portable computing device in over a year); I own a Creative Zen music player (which I use to hold digital copies of the CDs I own); my personal organiser (an old Palm M550) hasn’t been shifted out of the cradle since we moved house back in November; indeed, the only point at which I can be said to be gadgety at all (in my own opinion) is when I pull out the PSP to play a game or two. To be honest, I don’t really see the need to be constantly connected, constantly tapped into the data stream. I don’t even use an IM client, and haven’t bothered to download one for the laptop since I get so little use out of them.

    Slowing down enough to disconnect, enough to recharge the mental batteries and learn who we are ourselves, is something we all need in a lot of ways. The internet, with its constant barrage of information, can impede this journey of self-discovery. There’s a lot of pressure to be always “on” – on topic, on the mark, on top of things etc – and a lot of pressure as well to be continually available and present in the online world. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to just say “I’m not available”, switch the computer off, and settle down with a good book.

  5. Hey, stopping to recharge one’s batteries isn’t just about physical energy. :) I spend a lot of my life working on one thing or another, but sometimes, you just need to sit and absorb.

    It’s not lazy; it’s part of the circle of life (and now I’m stuck with that song for a few hours!).

  6. Kate — some thoughts:
    (I’m trying not to sound like some kind of self-help guru when I say these things, so bear with me)

    This is sort of a “getting everything you wanted and then realizing you want something else” sort of dilemma. I don’t mean that as a slam — I mean it as a compliment, but that there’s a progression once we get what we want of realizing, hmmm, that hit the spot in some ways but not in others. I am sorry to come across like I’m a wise know-it-all — I mostly just recognize in what you wrote that same sort of feeling that I have of, “really? This is what I wanted? Hmmm.”

    My impulse is to tell you do to exactly those things that will result in you being fulfilled and creative, because that will benefit me and the world as a whole, I believe. So if you stop doing this or start doing that, and in the short run I read less of you but in the long-run you have a novel, that’s a good thing.

    It’s also hard that there’s this standard that everyone is supposed to have read everything. It’s not possible to maintain, at least not for me with the demands of my life. I’m not sure how to resolve this, but I think if I try to keep my ego out of it, I will do better.

    I feel lucky that for the most part, my work stays at work (I wish I could say that my home life doens’t bleed over in the same way) but this does allow me to disconnect more easily.

  7. I like this absorption theory. It’s definitely something that’s a nice change from the OMG REPLY NOW!!! to the emails from work and things of that nature. Working for the company I do and in the capacity I do, it’s so easy to feel so over connected, over communicated, and overly on call. Even turning off the IM’s feels so good sometimes.

    I also love when I’m on vacation and leave my Europe cell phone in Europe. No one from work knows my American number, and I keep it that way. I love the feeling of disconnect.

  8. That’s the sound of thousands and thousands of students and scholars all putting their credit cards back into their wallets, iPads unpurchased.

    Vidya, I was just talking about this with Sweet Machine last night. All of these reading devices would be PERFECT for students and scholars, except nobody bothered to consider their needs. The Kindle does allow for marginal notes and highlighting, which is cool (though a little clunky in practice) — I haven’t checked to see if you could while reading Kindle books on the iPad — but there’s at least one big problem: There’s no obvious way to cite anything. Your progress through a book is measured in percent completed, not page numbers. (And if it had page numbers, changing the font size would change them.) And even if you could just say your source was X book at around 46%, there’s no way to pick up a Kindle and jump to the 46% area, without flipping through the first 45% page by page.

    So if they want to pick up some of the academic market (which publishers and e-book reader manufacturers certainly should, even if the iPad will do fine without it), there basically needs to be a location embedded in each paragraph (not unlike the Bible, though it would be better if chapter and verse were invisible in the text in this case), and a way of jumping to that location. As it is, to cite a book you read on an e-book reader, you need access to a hard copy anyway, so why bother?

    There are a bunch of other reasons why it’s not ideal for that market yet, but that’s a really obvious one that shouldn’t be too difficult to fix. And while older scholars might not be keen on making the switch any time soon, I have to assume that students would love being able to carry all of their books on one little device, so it’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of how soon and how smoothly it happens.

  9. Your progress through a book is measured in percent completed, not page numbers. (And if it had page numbers, changing the font size would change them.) And even if you could just say your source was X book at around 46%, there’s no way to pick up a Kindle and jump to the 46% area, without flipping through the first 45% page by page.

    There is the location number, which seems to be consistent across devices (I have my Kindle books synced on my Kindle and my ipod and they’re the same on both). In theory, I could imagine it becoming standard to use something like “L. 1375-1380″ to denote the location numbers, though presumably you’d have to also put some kind of notation as to the proprietary format. But then you have to do that now where more than one edition of the book exists. Interesting.

  10. Oh, and this was a really interesting post, thank you. I admit, the lack of multitasking and difficulty of typing was kind of a dealbreaker for me when I first heard about the ipad (well, okay, the price is the bigger issue right now, but still). But thinking about it, part of why I do like reading on my Kindle is that, unlike reading on the computer, there’s not 18 other things to be doing and interacting with – there’s something powerful about being able to sit back and consume media for a while and let yourself get absorbed into whatever you’re currently reading or watching instead of switching back and forth between six or seven other things, or feeling the need to formulate a response at the same time.

  11. There is the location number, which seems to be consistent across devices (I have my Kindle books synced on my Kindle and my ipod and they’re the same on both). In theory, I could imagine it becoming standard to use something like “L. 1375-1380″

    Ah, yes. I actually meant to say there’s obviously already something in there that allows the device to mark a passage and find it again, and there’s no reason why that wouldn’t be perfectly adequate for a citation. But I’ve been using a Kindle for nearly a year and had no idea what specifically was in there — I don’t know how to find the location number. So I’m thinking that should probably be a little more straightforward. (Unless I’m just clueless. But even then, so are a lot of consumers.)

  12. I think it might actually be a Kindle 1 vs. Kindle 2 difference, though I’m not sure – I have the Kindle 1 and the location number is really prominent (I think it’s where they have the percent read notation on the Kindle 2 – Kindle 1 doesn’t tell you that). I see why the percent read is nifty, but the location number is really useful to me when I’m switching between the same book on different devices, as well as when I want to skip forward in a book, so you’d think they’d want to exploit that functionality for that reason as well as for citation. I guess it’s the kind of thing that’ll get ironed out with time.

  13. Ah, that makes sense! I just assumed it was something that was there but not obvious to me, which is often the case with technology. Al has the Kindle 1 — I should ask him about that. And yeah, I can see why percent read looks slicker, but that does sound way more useful.

  14. Cool post KH. I do think there’s room in the market for an appliance like the iPad. Face it, more of us are more often consumers than producers of content. And as you point out so well, even the producers want to kick back and absorb.

    On the other hand, I get really frustrated by devices that won’t listen to me. If I ever buy a touch-sensitive device it damn sure better be able to let me doodle and take/edit pictures on it. And maybe toss off a comment on my favorite blog.

  15. Hm. I’m of two minds whether I think the shift to e-books would benefit me as a student or not… The old-fogey part is all, like, “But what about the experience of the paper?!” I enjoy the tactile experience of bringing a book with me somewhere, writing in its margins, cracking its spine, adding little post-it notes and whatnot. And a lot of the books I’m working with are still only in paper form.

    Then the gadget-freak side of me is all, like, “But you can bring 900 books with you anywhere! Never mind the margin notes!” And this is a huge advantage, absolutely, because I really am tied to my desk where all the actual books are residing right now. So it would be awesome to be able to read, or cite, or write stuff from/on the same small device, from anywhere. Imagine my productivity!

    But then… My big pet peeve with the (probably off-topic) Google Books thing is that you can neither make margin notes, nor cut-n-paste a block quote directly into your document. Nor can you print your Google Chapter, either! And I’m totally on board with the anti-plagiarism reasoning behind it, I get super-frustrated when I have to write out a quote by hand onto paper, then type it into my dissertation. Unless there is some way to do this, that I have not discovered as yet?

    Anyway…

    Long story short – I’m definitely experiencing some attraction-aversion to e-books, which I will need to resume lurking to think about further.

  16. Miss Minx, I had the same mental conflict before I got one and wasn’t at the point where I was ready to buy one for myself, but Al got it for me as a gift (mostly because he had the Kindle 1 and couldn’t justify buying a 2 for himself but wanted to check it out), and I fell in love with it instantly. (As opposed to the Sony Reader, which I bought for the novelty and then never used, for reasons I laid out here.) I still love real books as objects and can’t imagine a house that isn’t full of them, but it turns out I’m way less devoted to the experience of reading them than I thought I was. The Kindle is so convenient in so many ways, I really do think it’s superior for about 95% of the reading I do. And the portability compared to a hardcover or even a trade paperback is really, really nice for subway rides, waiting rooms, getting my hair done, etc., in addition to travel.

    In other Kindle news, a helpful reader just e-mailed me the following info about the location number on the Kindle 2. (Bless her heart, she didn’t want to leave an off-topic comment, but since I’m already doing that, I’ll quote her.)

    The progress bar is on the bottom of the screen. Directly above that bar, on the left hand side is the percentage completed. In the middle of the bar is the location. On the right hand side is the total # of locations in the book. The locations bit reads Locations 1-10 or whatever. I have yet to figure out the formula they use to establish the locations in the book, but you can jump to specific locations using the 5-way. It’s not a perfect system but if you know approximately where the item you are looking for is, it’s easier than paging through the whole book.

    Thanks, helpful reader!

  17. Kate, this morning I was writing — in a spiral notebook with a pen — and one of the things I wrote about was your comment at some point in the past that “I will never get a novel published until I finish writing one.” I was wondering if that was why you left Broadsheet… for myself, I definitely find that my creative-writing energies get suppressed when I am on the blogs and websurfing too much. I need to take a retreat (in my case, I think I need to go somewhere like an actual cabin in the woods, without internets; I’ve done this sort of thing before but not recently).

    So this blog post was synchronicitous for me. Thanks! I am always happy to read your writing, but I’d REALLY love to read your novel. (Which I want a paper copy of, to curl up and read without the glowing screen.)

    (There’s a coziness to the illumination-from-without of an incandescent light on paper that I cannot get from the glowing screen, no matter what. Also I think reading on-screen late at night gives me insomnia. It is too bright a light source for late at night, for me.)

    /luddite

  18. Miss Minx, I understand your inner old fogey’s objections, but when you get old fogey enough to no longer be able to find readers strong enough to make even large print books readable without arm extensions, a kindle starts looking pretty darn nice. My 85-ish step-mother is thinking of getting one for that reason and also because she’s gotten to the point where most books are actually too heavy for her to hold comfortably for any period of time. I actually think that aging boomers will begin embracing this technology much faster than a lot of people expect (I, of course, am just a really geeky aging boomer, so I’m all over my iPhone, iPad, iAnything that Steve tells me to buy… I also dress exclusively in black turtlenecks and jeans ;-)

    BTW, Kate, truly great post… gave me a lot to think about given that I’ve developed the bad habit of starting to write comments in my head before I even finish reading some of the blogs I frequent. Gotta watch that. Too much me and not enough other going on there perhaps.

  19. Brava, Kate!

    It’s great to have so many ways at our fingertips to be productive, but at some point you have to sit back and take more stuff in or you’ve got nothing to produce anymore.

    BTW, In Plain Sight and Law&Order reruns are two of my current fave timewasters.

  20. Another luddite chiming in! I still don’t have a phone that has internet access and have never owned a laptop or even an ipod!

    I read quite a bit and have been coveting a Kindle but have been unsure whether I could adjust or even figure out how it works! Now I am afraid that this ipad thing will make the Kindle the new betamax.

    Technology scares me.

  21. What a lovely, reflective post. Your time “unplugged” (or less plugged) has obviously done you some good!

    Not only do we all need time for mindless indulgence (let’s just say I relate to your “Law & Order” binge), but I think we should really question whether the tasks we wish to accomplish “productively” or “efficiently” are worth doing in the first place.

    Here’s to your quest for balance! (Raises cup of coffee…)

  22. “Another luddite chiming in! I still don’t have a phone that has internet access and have never owned a laptop or even an ipod!”

    Hah! I’ve owned a laptop (though it quickly became Mr. Twistie’s), but not only have I never owned an ipod, I do not now own and have never owned a cell phone, with or without internet access. I have a desktop and a (cordless, because I’m only so much of a Luddite, after all) landline. Oh, and I still have a VCR. I also have a DVD player, but I still have a VCR. Two in fact. One is so I can play the videotapes I got while I was in London. Mr. Twistie and I went a little nuts in Harrods.

  23. “I still don’t have a phone that has internet access…”

    I don’t have a phone (landline or cell), and never have; I don’t even have a number for incoming calls on Skype. This seems to baffle my extrovert acquaintances especially. People suggest all kinds of so-called ‘inexpensive’ phone options and plans, refusing to get that I. Do. Not. Want. A. Phone. I don’t like them. I’ve never liked them. I like my phonelessness.

    You can pry my netbook out of my cold, dead hands, though.

  24. This was wonderful to read, and has given me something to meditate upon. And it also feels damned timely, because at this moment I’m combatting the powerful urge to camp out in my inbox and fuss over a tense mailing list conversation. Geez, no! I have WORK to do. Stuff just can’t really get DONE, get WRITTEN or FINISHED or DRAWN if I don’t shut down the messengers and unplug the network cable.

    …so yes, I’ll be going and… working, now.

  25. My dad is a sysadmin at our state university’s flagship campus. He is plugged in a lot of the time – he has a work laptop, a pager for when servers go down, an “on call” pager every couple of months or so for a week, an Itouch that replaced his Palm Pilot, and a smartphone.

    For years we’ve been going to the same place for vacation, a glorified sandbar with rental houses that’s accessible by ferry. There used to be no internet and no cell service – now you can only pick up a signal if you go down to the docks where the ferry comes in. And my dad loves it because he can unplug for a week.

    Excellent post. Thanks for putting it up. <3

  26. To be honest, I don’t really see the need to be constantly connected, constantly tapped into the data stream. I don’t even use an IM client, and haven’t bothered to download one for the laptop since I get so little use out of them.

    This idea of people feeling a need or pressure to be constantly plugged in or always available, or even having to maintain a rapid response time for article comments or person IMs, has been interesting me a great deal lately. When I had an iPhone for work, I never felt any pressure or demand from the iPhone’s presence, but so may of my coworkers talked about having these feelings, and how problematic they are. I guess I never thought of myself as “constantly tapped into the data stream,” but rather as “having instant access to data if ever I should need it.” Is this just my personality thing? Does it have more to do with age and economic opportunities (I was able to afford a laptop via student loans my first year in college in 2001)? What are others’ experiences?

  27. @ Cassi – that’s a really good point! My mother is also having trouble holding books, so maybe if I get her a Kindle, I can check it out, too….

  28. Some of it probably also has to do with your employer. Mine is relatively low key, so while I’ll check e-mail on weekends and reply if it seems useful I don’t feel chained to it, nor do I feel guilty if I leave my iPhone at home or forget to charge it for a few hours. But friends who work at, for instance, big corporate law firms have a totally different experience because the iphone/blackberry is just a way for their employers to put them on-call 24/7. (like this old lawfirm mandate). I think it fosters a really different mind-set, or can at least.

  29. Excellent post — very insightful and lots to think about.

    Thinking about Broadsheet, the problem with for-profit blogs and online magazines is that all of the writers are under pressure to be topical and entertaining on a daily basis. The value of written content has declined (because we can read an infinite amount of interesting websites for free), and these sites make their money on page views / ads. So writers end up writing hundreds of little posts that were written quickly, and are only featured on the website for about 1 day before they get lost in the archives.

    The result is a lot of posts and articles that feel very forced. There are posts about “new trends” that are obviously not new, and probably not even trends, just to have something to write about. News stories are analyzed in ways that are a huge stretch, and not very insightful. Writers condemn things that nobody had even heard about, just to have a point to make. (“Today, a celebrity said something that I found offensive…”) It often feels like paid bloggers were just desperate for anything to write about.

    I read these sites all the time (Salon, Gawker, Slate, whatever) because there is so much content that it’s easy to procrastinate by reloading the sites all day… but really, I wish I could quit the habit and focus on work, then focus on a good book or on a few articles that I really want to read.

    None of that is criticism of your work at Broadsheet — I enjoyed your posts, and you used the platform to tackle important issues (Roman Polanski, some sanity on weight issues). But I can really see how the format would be exhausting for a writer.

  30. I realized around the holidays that I would waste all my free time online, while I had a book sitting right next to me. The free time would run out, and I would either have to create more free time, or put the book away until later. It took me a while to realize how much I was missing reading novels and books for pleasure. It also took a while to readjust to reading books rather than forever surfing the web. I spent way too much of that internet time responding to things.

    Since I am already plenty able to listen but not hear, I am glad I made the effort to restore absorbtion into my routine.

    This is a great post.

  31. @ Rachel – I hate the sensation of being “instantly accessible.” I don’t IM, I don’t keep a FaceSpace account, I don’t follow Twitter, I hardly answer my entirely-un-smart phone and empty its voicemail maybe once a week. I HATE IT. That data stream and my health and sanity are NOT compatible. I quit one job specifically because I was required to keep a phone on at all times. In fact, if it weren’t for my husband’s insistence, I would follow Vidya’s lead and keep no telephone at all. @ Vidya – Telephones are miserable things.

    And yet, I have a very productive work life, a very happy social life, and I’m not a luddite at all. In fact, Kate’s description of the iPad sounds quite beautiful and elegant – I love the idea of being able to totally sink into someone else’s creation. It’s fun, and I don’t like to call it passive – I like to call it “romantic.”

    An open letter to my extroverted-yet-socially-avoidant-friends: I like you – I just prefer you in my apartment, sitting on my couch, drinking my tea, and in this context, you are always welcome and never in the way. Somehow, when technology gets between us, you become so incredibly annoying. I don’t care if you have lots to say or nothing to say, or even if you make a mess, if you’re close enough for me to feel the heat off your skin, I’m happy.

  32. Thinking about Broadsheet, the problem with for-profit blogs and online magazines is that all of the writers are under pressure to be topical and entertaining on a daily basis. The value of written content has declined (because we can read an infinite amount of interesting websites for free), and these sites make their money on page views / ads. So writers end up writing hundreds of little posts that were written quickly, and are only featured on the website for about 1 day before they get lost in the archives.

    I disagree. If a writer can’t write on demand, then they should consider it a hobby. It’s not hard to write on demand. I do every single day for FREE. I hate hearing this put forth as an excuse why people don’t write well or as much as they think they should. It has nothing to do with the new jack inventions and everything to do with their old jack intentions.

    also, where is your blog, CL? I am always amused to see statements such as yours without a link to back it up.

  33. I worry about becoming behind in technology. I borrow a computer from someone else in my household. I have a “free with basic emergency use plan” cellphone I don’t know how to work. I own a 2004 “ipod mini” except it only functions for 8 minutes because the battery is practically in the grave.

    I worry that I’ll somehow fall to the wayside of society by not understanding how to use such things as “facebook” and “twitter”. I don’t know what an “app” does on a cellphone and frankly I’ve never heard of “ipad” or “kindle”. Despite owning an old ipod I never figured out what a podcast does.

    It’s not that I’m against technology or that I don’t want to learn but simply I don’t have access financially or via peers to these devices. Will my chances of finding a job, making friends, and so on be affected by my lack of access to these apparently now socially required technologies?

  34. @Krishji: It’s interesting that we both hate the exact same thing, and yet you find electronic and social communications media oppressive where I find it liberating. The beautiful thing about Twitter and IM and all that jazz (instead of, for example, a phone, which I also despise with the heat of a thousand suns) is that I am not instantly accessible. No one knows whether I am really there. No one can expect me to reply within a predetermined period of time. It’s like screening my calls on steroids. :)

    I am beginning to think that this might have something to do with extroversion v. introversion and also with social norms within particular cultures or circles of friends. I do not feel instantly accessible to whoever wants me via social media, because no one I know expects me to be instantly responsive or even present (or I’m too socially obtuse to know they do?). I’m also a big fan of having a friend over to my space for a cuppa, but sometimes my introvert self is just too (people) exhausted to share physical space with a human being. Yet, it can be nice to work in a little, “So how was your day?” with my loved ones, electronically, where I don’t worry that their undivided attention and eyes are on me and I have to come up with something entertaining to say.

  35. Re: scholarly applications of the kindle/ipad
    When the Kindle first came out, I was in the midst of writing my undergraduate thesis, and I had more than 30 books checked out and I needed damn near every one of them every time I wanted to do any work. And I could see how having all of my materials on one neat little Kindle would be incredibly liberating, except none of the materials I needed were even available for the Kindle (and then there were the annotating and citing difficulties that others have discussed). If the Kindle/iPad could solve some of those issues and as more materials become available in e-format, I think these devices could be really useful for scholarly work (for instance, it would be really awesome to be able to search a book for a quote that you remembered but hadn’t annotated, then highlight it, and copy and paste it right into your document with proper citation).

    @KH – I totally get where you’re coming from about absorbing media, and not having a TV. Being 23 and just out of college, I’m glued to my laptop and not having internet in my apartment wasn’t even an option, but cable just seemed like an unnecessary expense. Between Hulu and Netflix there’s always something that I want to watch, and I’m not stuck to the networks’ schedules. I also feel like I’m more deliberate about what TV I consume on the internet, because I actually have to select something instead of just channel surfing and watching whatever comes on. Sometimes it comes up at work that I don’t have a TV, and all of my coworkers (who are all 40-60 yrs old) seem scandalized, or at least highly surprised that I don’t own a TV.

  36. I have a blog commenters confession, which leads me to wonder if I am the only one, and then further leads me to think someone needs to write about this for a senior thesis I am advising so I can see the results.

    I try not to comment on posts if I haven’t read all the comments. This means I much prefer to read and comment when there are, say, fewer than 15 comments than if there are more. I will be more likely to read all the comments and then not say anything if there are fewer than 50. After that, I usually will scan comments for comments by the mods, then back up and read related comments without reading all of them. In the last case, it’s I often find myself in one of those related-in-a-way byways of discussion ala the great style and fashion post from a few days back.

    Or, that’s what I think I do, but haven’t actually kept track. So, one thing about that is, I wonder what would discover if they did a study of reader/ commenter motivations and more particularly, commenter strategies.

    In a personal way, this leads to some uncomfortable reflection on my willingness to listen vs. my readiness to talk. And talk, and talk.

  37. I disagree. If a writer can’t write on demand, then they should consider it a hobby. It’s not hard to write on demand. I do every single day for FREE. I hate hearing this put forth as an excuse why people don’t write well or as much as they think they should. It has nothing to do with the new jack inventions and everything to do with their old jack intentions.

    I agree with both of you, actually.

    Being a professional writer of any kind will inevitably involve writing on demand, usually to deadline. If you can’t do that, you won’t last long.

    But it also is part of what tired me out about Broadsheet, for a couple of reasons. 1) I was restricted to a few basic themes, all of which I’d written about a zillion times. 2) As I said on the Bullock post, blogging fast means publishing first drafts. (That doesn’t mean I don’t read them over and proof and adjust certain sentences. But it does mean I don’t have time to go away, get a little distance, come back and realize I could cut 3 paragraphs and make my argument stronger.)

    So yes, hastily written work is generally not going to be as good as thoroughly considered, heavily revised work. (And yes, sometimes it is forced.) But there’s always been a market for that — daily newspapers don’t allow for a ton of reflection on most writers’ parts, either. The internet just provides a hell of a lot more outlets for it. And lord knows I read enough blogs, so even if they’re not perfect, I do enjoy the medium.

    I happen to be the kind of writer who likes doing longer stuff and taking plenty of time to revise it, too, though. But that’s harder to get paid for (at this point in my career, anyway) and really hard to do when I have to write a couple of blog posts a day. Hence quitting and the ongoing search for balance.

  38. I have a job where I need to spend most of my day alone and very focused, and if possible keep my mind clear. I’ve thought recently that I would be better if I stepped away from the technology a bit and tried to cut back on internet use. For me it’s like sticking my face into a very fast moving river, and without realising, hours can fly by. Sometimes that actually helps me with my work and sometimes I actively want to be distracted all day because I’m having creative blocks.
    All the technological advances that allow greater communications are fabulous, and actually I think hold the key to greater leaps of creativity. But it all of depends on who is the user. Everytime I hear the internet being judged harshly, I think of the same comparison. Basically, it has exactly the same power as a simple pencil, in that a pencil can create the basis of the greatest art man is capable of, or it can write the worst soul crushing insults. Depends on who is holding it.

  39. “Sometimes it comes up at work that I don’t have a TV, and all of my coworkers (who are all 40-60 yrs old) seem scandalized, or at least highly surprised that I don’t own a TV.”

    Haha, oh yes. When my roommate’s parents visited us for the first time, they repeatedly asked, “What do you do without a TV???” (Roommate, exasperatedly: “We have THE INTERNET.”) It seemed kind of sad, really, that people in their 60s would not have figured out that there are plenty of other interesting ways (high- or low-tech) to spend one’s leisure time. I mean, in addition to the internet, we have shelves and shelves of books, and two cats. That’s plenty of entertainment.

  40. @ AnthroK8 – I am a stubborn comment-reader as well; I will usually sacrifice participation at some point, and just read if I feel I can’t keep up.

    @ Rachel – YES, I think we’re onto something with the introversion/extroversion question and social norms. My husband manages a social life involving hundreds of people primarily through electronic means for the exact reasons that you mention: he feels as if he has the time and control to respond in his own way. I have a social life involving about fifteen people, eight people if I’m honest with myself, with whom human contact is our primary source of affection. I know that when I’m cold and tired on the east side, I can ring Todd the SAHD and say, “Imma sleep on your couch” and not be turned away. I also know that I can run upstairs to Ray the legally controversial salesman like Hyacinth Bucket and say “Coffee in five minutes, Ray! Don’t bother to put anything on!” Mizz Otoba knows that I will not blanch if she comes to my door asking for help with her recycling. Lots of parents in the neighborhood know that it’s OK for the kids to sit on my stoop and I will do maths with them, and if they like the smell of what I’m cooking, they’ll just let themselves in. So, in a way, I demand immediate availability and others demand it from me as well, but I’m never bothered. I never feel the need to be entertaining, however. If I have to work, I just do it. Is it introversion? Extroversion? I think this is the question, but I’m not sure how to answer it.

  41. also, where is your blog, CL? I am always amused to see statements such as yours without a link to back it up.

    I think you’re reading judgment or condemnation into my comment that isn’t there. I sympathize with the writers who are paid to blog, especially those who write for a blog like Gawker where they have to post 10 or 12 times per day, and every post has to be topical. Even posting twice per day on an assigned topic must get difficult after a while. I think anyone in this position would sometimes feel like their writing was forced, or like they chose a topic because they had to write something. That doesn’t mean that all of this writing is bad — I keep reading these blogs because they are interesting and entertaining. But I do believe the format can be draining for writers, and there are a lot of “filler” posts as a result.

    Writing every day comes easily to people who love to write. But working for a for-profit blog that demands a certain type of post, multiple times per day, is different from being able to write whatever you want on your own blog. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that nobody is good at churning out entertaining and topical articles. I think Kate did a great job at Broadsheet, and you might also thrive working for a similar site.

  42. @CL, I think it does take a special kind of writer to thrive in these spaces. But I don’t think it’s love of writing that matters as much as discipline and determination.

  43. @ AnthroK8 – I am a stubborn comment-reader as well; I will usually sacrifice participation at some point, and just read if I feel I can’t keep up.

    Bless you both for this. As much as I appreciate your comments, one of my biggest pet peeves that’s not officially in the comments policy is people who start by saying, “I haven’t read all the comments, but I just had to say…” Because what they just HAD to say has already been covered 99 times out of 100. And the 100th time, I still don’t care, because it’s rude. It’s like walking into a crowd and saying, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about this subject, so now I am going to share my opinion on it and then walk away.”

    I get that it’s hard to keep up with very long comment threads, but as many people intuitively figure out, there is a simple solution: Just don’t comment. Read what you can and let it go.

    A corollary to this whole post is the value of lurking — as long as you’re not talking, you have zero risk of embarrassing yourself or getting smacked down by a mod! It’s brilliant! Before I started blogging or commenting on anyone else’s blog (both happened around the same time), I spent years lurking at various sites — absorbing! listening! — and learning how online conversations go. I was a big reader of the Television Without Pity forums back in the pre-Bravo, pre-sucking days (in fact, starting back in the Mighty Big TV days), and that taught me at least 85% of what I needed to know about modding, long before I had anything to mod. When I first read that FAQ and saw how snippy the mods there could get, I was horrified — but then I kept reading and saw the patterns that come up over and over and over again, making the rules necessary and snippiness perfectly understandable. (One of the inviolable rules there was always DO NOT FUCKING COMMENT IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE REST OF THE CONVERSATION. Boy, do I get that now.) And when I started reading blogs and their comments sections, I saw the same shit — plus some feminist- and fat-specific shit — over and over and over, and quickly learned I wasn’t interested in reading comments that weren’t modded with an iron fist. Because they are nothing but, you guessed it, the same shit over and over.

    I took all that in before I ever posted a damned thing online. And to this day, I don’t comment nearly as much as I read — there are a ton of blogs I read daily and never comment on, even if I like their comments sections. So when I write, I always try to remember that my audience — whether it’s here or Broadsheet or Jez — is made up of far, far more lurkers (hi, lurkers!) than commenters. And among those are people who are silently cheering me on and people who only read because they can’t believe how batshit I am, but I’ll probably never hear from any of them or know how many fall into each camp — so at the end of the day, all I can do is publish things that make sense to me. (And apologize when something that made sense to me at the time is, in retrospect, completely fucked up.)

  44. Writing every day comes easily to people who love to write. But working for a for-profit blog that demands a certain type of post, multiple times per day, is different from being able to write whatever you want on your own blog. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that nobody is good at churning out entertaining and topical articles. I think Kate did a great job at Broadsheet, and you might also thrive working for a similar site.

    I’m not referring to Kate’s work. But this idea that if someone doesn’t like churning out stuff for other people’s vision, then somehow it’s the fault of the vision, rather than the writer. Kate was exact opposite. I have no idea what her own thoughts about writing those pieces, but I do know they were well written and approached the material in an interesting way.

    I don’t think writers get better when they’re only allowed to write about what they want. I’m just rather passionate about this topic because it comes up over and over again and the same arguments get played out in a way that always seem to spare the writer culpability.

    I’ve done extensive ghost writing for others, which I was paid for and also write in several other places which aren’t my blog – here is one of them – where the topic or subject is preselected. I find it invigorating since it really forces you to try to write for the audience in front of you rather than the one you’d like to show up. It’s great practice.

    So I’ll settled myself down.

    But back to the topic, I am still not sure how all this technology is going to enhance my writing but I’m open to the possibility!

  45. I try not to comment on posts if I haven’t read all the comments. This means I much prefer to read and comment when there are, say, fewer than 15 comments than if there are more. I will be more likely to read all the comments and then not say anything if there are fewer than 50.

    I do something like this, too.

    If there are only a handful of comments, I sometimes feel like I could leave one; in the threads that have even 30+ comments, I don’t chime in, mainly because whatever I would have said has already been said, most usually more articulately or amusingly than I could manage at the time – especially threads involving satiric poetry and other creative endeavours. I love those!

    And maybe part of it could be introversion, as well, and part of it is continually thinking that I could never run with the ‘big dogs’ of blogging… Maybe where I can go with this on my young and unformed blog is exploring possible links between introversion and (for me) some social anxiety…?

    (This is clearly an extroversion day, for me – I have made three comments! And two more on Shakesville, besides!)

  46. I try not to comment on posts if I haven’t read all the comments. This means I much prefer to read and comment when there are, say, fewer than 15 comments than if there are more. I will be more likely to read all the comments and then not say anything if there are fewer than 50. After that, I usually will scan comments for comments by the mods, then back up and read related comments without reading all of them. In the last case, it’s I often find myself in one of those related-in-a-way byways of discussion ala the great style and fashion post from a few days back.

    In the bad old days of the internet I probably would’ve done what my partner terms “paying my respects” to blogs – were we calling them that then – rather than actually engage with what was going on in the comment section, regardless of the amount of responses.

    Now, I read everything posted (which gets hard when places have fast moving comment sections) and sometimes that means I end up addressing a viewpoint rather than individual commenters.

    Also, I tend to reply to what I find interesting and don’t feel especially compelled to address other things.

    Oddly enough the ease of access has not changed the lurker (though I like rubbernecker, myself)/active user dynamic the way folks thought it would. In many ways it seems to have increased the “paying my respects to the post” style of commenting!

    Someone should do a project on it.

  47. I spend much more of my life than I used to thinking about what I’m going to say next. I’m composing a comment in response to what I just read instead of sitting with it; I’m having “chats” with friends where there can be no pleasant silences without one of us wondering if the other is still there; if I’m observing the world around me, half the time I’m thinking, “How do I make this a funny tweet?”

    This.
    I went through a crisis last week involving Facebook, for the very same reasons. It was set off by their new changes to their privacy again, but then I started reading articles by various people who left it and why, and it all centered around those same ideas. That I’m in my head more often than anywhere else. That I’m constantly putting on a performance. That I can’t do anything without figuring out how to make it a clever status. That I’m pushing things out rather than enjoying what is there. I came down off the brink of deleting my account entirely because of wanting to see all the information from everyone else, but I’m trying to deliberately step back and not broadcast everything I do, and to experience what I’m doing. I think it’s sort of similar to your idea of absorbing rather than interacting, but also not wanting to interact because I’m tired of making everything about me.

  48. I don’t think I’ve ever really posted a status update ( ever) or written a blog post in the last couple of months that actually told anyone what I was doing. Do people really want to know when I’m mobilizing the sixth fleet or getting my teeth cleaned?

  49. Another no-cellphone-or-TV person here :-) Well, we have a TV, but it doesn’t talk to anything. It plays Netflixes!

    Also, just a pet peeve…”luddite” doesn’t (or at least didn’t) mean “opposed to all new technology”. It’s a mindset based on challenging the assumption that new technology is automatically better, and adopting new technology only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. The early Luddites were certainly wrong about a lot of things, but the word gets used in an unfair way these days.

  50. >> “luddite” doesn’t (or at least didn’t) mean “opposed to all new technology”. It’s a mindset based on challenging the assumption that new technology is automatically better, and adopting new technology only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

    Nicely put, and I agree! I should have admitted, too (upthread) that while I was writing in my spiral notebook, I kept stopping to check Twitter on my iPhone.

    For me, the benefits of the paper and pen are crucial – notably that I cannot delete. I can cross it out, but if I crossed it out because of a failure of confidence and not because it actually sucked, I can still go back and reevaluate it. If my first drafts were done on a computer, I’d self-censor.

  51. A footnote to an offhand reference…you probably already know, but in case you don’t, one of the bloggers at http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/ is John Rogers, showrunner for Leverage.

    Thanks for the information about the iPad. I’d been so put off by the name that I’d studiously avoided all the press. You’ve given me something to think about, and I’m very grateful.

  52. I am staunchly pen and paper. I notice the most prolific writers tend to be. So I modeled myself after them. Stephen King writes all his manuscripts by hand on yellow legal pads and Pilot G2′s. Say what you will about his writing, but damn, he can “churn” it out. Meanwhile we’re talking about him and he ain’t talking about us.

  53. I have an iPod touch (which I always want to call an iTouch but that is probably a sex toy… ) I actually use it to read blogs and stuff on the train, and play games when I’m bored and listen to audiobooks, or music.

    What I LOVE about it is that it isn’t always online. It is useful around the house if I don’t want to run into the other room and boot up my gigantic gaming machine to look something up on wikipedia (to settle an argument of course!). It is also great for storing multiple knitting patterns so I don’t have to carry a bunch of paper around that I will inevitably lose. But I don’t find myself updating twitter and facebook and watching you tube when I’m out with friends and family, partially because I CAN’T. It, like the iPad and probably slightly more so, forces me to just consume media, and not even media that is updated by the second.

    re: Lurking. I know I always get less of a blog post when I am reading it while simultaneously composing my comment. Listening is important, good call.

  54. I’d like you all to know that I have paused a Law & Order rerun in order to read ALL the comments (AnthroK8 – I’m another person who won’t comment without having read all the comments first).

    Thanks, Kate, for giving me a good answer to the ‘but what is the iPad FOR?’ question that’s been going round my head since it was launched. It makes complete sense how you’ve just described it.

    I’ve recently become addicted to Twitter and find it fun in a kind of ‘watching TV alone and making the comments I would previously have made to my ex/my housemate’ way. I feel more connected using it. But it doesn’t feel the same as real-life conversation with friends, although I have friends I only know through Twitter whom I love talking to in 140 characters or fewer. Very
    few of my close friends are on Twitter so maybe it would be different if they were. If it gets to the point where it becomes a performance, rather than a reaching out for connection, I will have to quit it, but I can entirely understand why some of you have called it that. Already I censor myself (I was devastated when my ex started seeing someone else, but I didn’t want to howl that pain all over the internet to be visible for all eternity), so it is kind of a one-sided view already.

    Hmm, may have wandered slightly off-topic here. Great piece, Kate – really chimed with a lot of what I’ve been feeling about keeping up with blogs and social networking sites. Sometimes I just want to have someone tell me a story that’s easy to follow which requires only the effort of consuming it too. Although for myself J sometimes wonder if it’s all too easy for me just to consume, which stops me producing. Someone once said (god knows where, but it’s always stuck with me) in response to a naive but enthusiastic person saying they want to be a writer but hadn’t written anything yet, ‘In my experience, writers write.’ There’s probably a good balance for all of us between producing and consuming – and it’s probably different for each of us. I don’t think I’m there yet with mine.

  55. P.S. I wrote that TL;DR comment on my iPhone. So I guess it’s evidence that you can kind of produce on a device like that, but also evidence that proof-reading on one of these things is basically impossible.

  56. “Before I started blogging or commenting on anyone else’s blog (both happened around the same time), I spent years lurking at various sites — absorbing! listening! — and learning how online conversations go. ”

    @Kate: Thank you for telling us this. I have been lurking here and at other blogs for three+ years, and have maybe made two comments the whole time. I am starting my own blog soon, but was feeling funny about the fact that I’ve never actually participated much in any others, just consumed. I’m glad to know that a woman I admire as much as you had the same experience. Thanks for giving me a different spin on the value of simply listening.

  57. DRST, Leverage is basically the official show of SP. A Sarah and Snarky’s Machine both started talking about it in e-mails around the same time, which got me into it, and when I wouldn’t shut up, Sweet Machine got into it. Fillyjonk is the last holdout, but I swear we will wear her down.

  58. What an interesting post, Kate. This subject fascinates me. My husband and I are writers who co-edit a magazine and our personal productivity and creativity has taken a huge nosedive because of our jobs. After reading other people’s mostly terrible writing all day, the last thing we want to do is write. It’s like when you’re talking to a dull person who’s rambling and on and on and on–by the time you can get a word in, you’re not even interested in talking anymore; you just want to go to lie down in a dark room with a couple of Advil.

    There seems to be no societal balance between villainizing technology and worshipping it, or between consumption and production. And the effects of being even slightly off that balance are surprisingly dramatic–the difference between updating my blog once a week or twice a week is major for me, emotionally. I’m glad you’re seeking a middle-ground. The demands on you for both your creativity and your attention seem pretty high.

  59. @Rachel, I hated having a smart phone for work, but unfortunately the cultural of the practice of law now demands it. It used to be that if I was in a deposition all day, clients and colleagues would understand that they really couldn’t get ahold of me until the end of the day when I went back to my office or hotel to check email. Of course if there was a big issue demanding more immediate attention they could call and leave a message and I’d get back to them during breaks or lunch. But with the advent of smart phones, people can just email you the smallest, most inane things and they expect a quick response. Since so many people are cued in all the time and communicate with each other at a rapid pace, if you check out to, say, have dinner with the family or try to have some alone time, you can miss a lot and get behind the 8-ball rather quickly. Once the office and professional culture changes, you are pretty much expected to change with it or be left behind. I resisted getting a smart phone for a long time, but eventually I felt like I was putting myself at a professional disadvantage. Leaving my firm meant leaving my smart phone, and I’ve never been tempted to go back. But that’s probably because in my personal social sphere, I’m pretty introverted and trying to keep up with all of the various forms of social media is just overwhelming to me. I try to stay on top of what’s out there so that I don’t fall behind knowledge-wise, but as for use, I read and comment on a few blogs, and that’s about it.

    As for the iPad, I confess to being a total piss-on-your-parade fuddy duddy. When I think of how much we consume in this country, how many new gadgets come out that so many people feel compelled to get. When I think of how much waste is created by people continuously trading up their technology, and some of the attenuated social and environmental costs of making, consuming, and throwing out (or even recycling) that technology, it disheartens me. I know people who have desk tops, lap tops, iPods, Kindles, and iPhones who ran out to triumphantly purchase their iPads, and I’m like, why? Is the convenience factor really worth the hidden costs? I mean, I was just reading how some of the violence in the Congo can be attributed to people fighting over who controls access to a large deposit of a particular mineral that’s necessary for making electronics. However attenuated the connection may feel to someone walking into an Apple Store in, say, NYC, to upgrade to the next generation iPhone, there is nonetheless a connection. I saw a story on 60 Minutes about a place in China where an unimaginable amount of electronic gadgets and equipment from other parts of the world wind up for “recycling.” It’s one of the most polluted places on the planet, and the conditions and health problems that the workers suffer are horrifying. There are hidden costs to our consumption, and I guess I wish that there was more mindfulness about that. I’m not trying to duck the blame; I own my share of electronic equipment. But these days I’m trying to draw a broader line for myself in terms of really thinking hard about why I’m wanting to buy things. For example, whenever I start thinking about how nice it would be to upgrade my “clunky” old iPod, I remind myself of those hidden costs and I conclude that I can more than live with what I already have since it works just fine, and I really don’t need all of the bells and whistles that come with the newer models.

    I don’t know… I try not to be so cranky about this stuff, but something about the iPad is really getting under my skin.

  60. Yes, I read all the comments. Huge-ass comment threads, in fact, are my Achilles heel. I can read 800 freakin’ comments and then wonder where all my “free time” went.

    I suppose I’m a Luddite in the original sense of the term — not anti-technology as such, but I’m very picky about what I let into my life, because I have the kind of job where I can’t make money and be absorbed in a million different kinds of media at the same time, plus I need extra sleep because of the meds…argh. Also, I work at home, so when I do get out of the freakin’ house, the last thing I want to do is stare at yet another screen.

    Add to that the fact that I need some kind of special Guide for Autistics to Social Media, because I find it all completely intimidating. Who I’m supposed to friend or follow, who’s supposed to be friending or following me, how often I’m supposed to be updating, who I’m supposed to allow to read what, how many friends or followers I’m supposed to have or people will think I’m a serial killer…I just feel like 47 kinds of stoopits trying to keep it all straight. (I’m actually thinking of bringing this up at the next ASAN meeting, to see if anyone has any solutions for this.)

    What I really, really would like to have, technology-wise, is a good handwriting recognition program. I’m already strapped to a chair and typing or editing speech-rec gobbledygook 8 hours a day, and when I’m working on the novel, I find I prefer writing in longhand if I can, sometimes even lying in bed (!). But then I just have to type it all up afterwards, which is a wicked pain in the keister (literally). I tried the CrossPad 10 years ago and just could not get it to recognize my handwriting and gave up; I tried using that chicken-scratch symbol stuff on the Palm Pilot and that was seriously annoying too. Anyone have any suggestions?

  61. I’ve been online since 1990. Initially I had no division between “work” and “personal” online — it was just me, posting from my work account on Usenet, and nobody cared because everyone did the same thing.

    I don’t do that anymore. Now I have social media where I am known to coworkers, social media that is more private … and that’s before we get to THIS persona, in which I’m “the 400lb chick”.

    Yes, I understand the need to recharge after producing a lot. Producing takes thinking and brains. Recharging — and, sometimes, discharging — is important. Often we’ll have different ways of doing it. In my case, yes, my laptop is nice for games and blogs and reading newspapers and twitter, but I still prefer to read books on paper. I can do it anywhere, no need to plug in or charge batteries — heck, I don’t even need my glasses to read on paper! (Since I my astigmatism gives me headaches almost immediately if I use a computer without my glasses, being able to NOT wear my glasses is a big “Ooh, I’m not at work” signifier. :)

  62. @Kate- it seems only fair, really.

    @Snark- oh yes. Informatics and anthropology would be a good double major for that project!

    @The Other Comment Readers- How much collective housecleaning have we skived in order to Read All The Comments, I wonder?

  63. Chiming in as another person who is obligated to read all the comments before I comment, for many of the reasons Kate said. Additionally, I tend to agonize over my comments, thoroughly overthinking them. These 2 things combined mean that, in practice, I comment about as often as I do my taxes. (Which I may or may not be avoiding right this second by reading Shapely Prose instead. But @AnthroK8, my contribution has to be in the triple digits of how many hours of housecleaning I’ve avoided by reading the monster threads. I’m just doing a different avoidance today.)

  64. Hi, another of the lurk-way-more-than-I-comment-and-read-all-comments-before-considering-the-notion-of-commenting horde piping up. Kate, good luck on the novel and happy that you’ve chosen to be back here more often.

    @Rebecca re: feeling like you’re falling behind technologically due to limited resources: this post from Quinn Norton, Why I won’t be buying an iPad and why it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, may be of interest. From the post:

    1. For most poor people, the idea that the net is dangerous is pretty laughable. We actually do live in dangerous places, and mostly the police don’t really protect us so much as protect you from us.
    2. Also, the iPad seriously looks like thief bait. We’re not idiots, we know what our drunk uncles are going to do with it if we come home with one.
    3. Rich includes the middle classes. You all look the same to me.

  65. But for me, the blessing and the curse of it is, I spend much more of my life than I used to thinking about what I’m going to say next. I’m composing a comment in response to what I just read instead of sitting with it; I’m having “chats” with friends where there can be no pleasant silences without one of us wondering if the other is still there; if I’m observing the world around me, half the time I’m thinking, “How do I make this a funny tweet?”

    This is so real. Very honest. Love the post.

  66. I read all the comments before I join in, and it usually ends up with comments being closed before I get a chance to immerse myself properly in the discussion. Ah well.

    Anyway, this post along with Auntysarah’s response to the launch have absolutely convinced me that a) the iPad is going to be a huge success even by Apple standards, and b) I really, really don’t want one.

    Also really really like that comment from Quinn Norton, thanks for linking it, Another Sarah.

  67. I worry that I’ll somehow fall to the wayside of society by not understanding how to use such things as “facebook” and “twitter”. I don’t know what an “app” does on a cellphone and frankly I’ve never heard of “ipad” or “kindle”. Despite owning an old ipod I never figured out what a podcast does.

    It’s not that I’m against technology or that I don’t want to learn but simply I don’t have access financially or via peers to these devices. Will my chances of finding a job, making friends, and so on be affected by my lack of access to these apparently now socially required technologies?

    Rebecca, I don’t think anyone’s offered practical answers those questions yet, so I’ll try to give you some.

    I think the degree of social necessity depends a lot on the technology in question. Like, with the iPad, Kindle, etc., basically any of the hardware, you won’t be left behind any time soon because you don’t know how they work — at worst, you’ll feel left out of some conversations (which is no fun and can indeed have negative effects on a career, but in general, that’s not as severe as not knowing about something you might actually need to use for a job). But mostly, you should probably just feel free to be annoyed when people* drone on about them, because they’re toys and status items far more than anything else. They get a lot of buzz because they’re really neat — but there are a whole lot of things in the world that are really neat and which most of us will never need or be able to afford.

    As someone who (so far) chooses not to own an iPhone, for example, when I hear people rhapsodizing about how amazing they are, I’m like “Whatever.” They are very cool devices that do some very cool shit, but cool is primarily what distinguishes them, not any magic new technology people really need at this point. (Apps, btw, are applications, i.e., programs you can download to the phone, ranging from useful things to games to really silly shit.) At the end of the day, it’s just a fancy smartphone, and the main social/professional advantage to any smartphone right now is being able to check e-mail all the damn time. And there are much, much cheaper devices for doing that if you really need to. (Which is not to presume those are affordable for everyone, either, but they’re within reach of a hell of a lot more people.) And I think (I’m sure people will correct me if I’m wrong) that for the time being at least, most jobs that would require a smartphone will provide one for you.

    The thing is, I can say all that because I could have an iPhone if I wanted one, and I’ve seen them and considered the pros and cons of buying one — so when I’m left out of that conversation, my kneejerk response is, “Oh, shut up, you’re boring me” instead of “Oh shit, what am I missing?” And that — the confidence that I’m not missing anything important — is definitely a big social advantage in itself. But about 90% of the time, when it’s a new gadget everyone’s talking about, you’re definitely not missing anything important by not having one, and you’re probably not even missing anything important by having no clue what it is.

    Depending on your field, stuff like Facebook and Twitter might be worth checking out when you can borrow a computer or get to a library, just to get a sense of how social media works. I do think that’s something that’s not going away — even if these particular iterations of it might be — and the concept will be increasingly useful for networking in a variety of fields (not to mention reconnecting with old friends and potentially making new ones, though the old fashioned way still works fine). The good news is, those services are free, no more complicated to use than commenting on a blog, and you don’t have to participate actively to learn what’s what. You would need to set up an account for each and friend/follow some people — I’m on both and lots of other bloggers are if you don’t know where to start — to watch what happens. But it ain’t rocket science; it doesn’t take much watching to get the picture. And then poof, you are a person who has Facebook and Twitter accounts and a basic understanding of social media.

    Those, as I said, are the practical, short-term answers. The REAL answer is, it fucking sucks that the cost of new technology is shoving even more class wedges into the culture and creating even more barriers to advancement for people who don’t have access to whatever The Latest Thing is. But since I’m not going to solve that today, I figured I could at least try to demystify some of the specific things you asked about.

    *including me

  68. I-Pad aside this all just screams to me America and work! Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time in Europe, but really truly they take these things called “holidays” where they disconnect from whatever “work” they normally do for a good six weeks (and that’s just the main holiday, not the smaller ones). And these people, they aren’t perfect, they haven’t figured out the meaning of life, but they are so much less stressed out and so much more, what’s the word I’m looking for here….Normal? The way I can be when my job doesn’t become 80 hours a week, which happens way too much! Europeans enjoy junk media as much as we do, but I don’t think they feel the need for “absorption” in the same way as us (and I say us, because I do the same thing!) because they don’t usually get stressed in the same way. They don’t need that intense decompression AND they don’t have to be “doing something” like watching tv, to fill their off time–because they’ve learned to relax. Okay, I’ll stop here, since I’m totally overgeneralizing and sounding preachy, but really truly, I think this is a serious cultural issue.

  69. Great post. Right now is one of the few times in the last few weeks that I’ve been on the computer when I’m not nursing or holding the baby. This one likes to be patted on the butt nearly all the time, so I’ve constantly got one hand either holding my boob or patting the baby’s bottom. And, I can read and watch and surf and even play Bejeweled just fine with one hand, but typing one-handed is a very slow and annoying process for me. I’m a very fast typer and a very fast writer (4-1/2 years as an English lit grad student will do that–I can churn out five pages of argument in about fifteen minutes), so one-handed typing is not something I enjoy.

    It’s made me realize how used to always responding to things I’ve become, even when I don’t have anything particularly interesting, original, or useful to say. It’s made me ask myself why I always feel a need to make my opinion on a given subject heard, even if it’s not particularly informed or well-thought-out. I find it very, very frustrating to read something and not be able to immediately and easily shoot off a long reply, but I think it’s also very good for me, because it makes me think about what’s worth responding to and what’s worth saying, and when it’s best to just read and watch and not share my opinion.

  70. I normally read all the comments. When I first started commenting on blogs, I would sometimes respond to a post with some clever thing, only to find that comments were talking about something else entirely for no discernible reason. After I started reading the comments, I would take too long to write my posts, and by the time I was finished, someone else had already brought up the same thing and conversation had moved on. So I started refreshing threads as I write comments, and revising my comment if anyone has said anything similar, which is possibly overkill.

  71. this all just screams to me America and work! Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time in Europe, but really truly they take these things called “holidays” where they disconnect from whatever “work” they normally do for a good six weeks (and that’s just the main holiday, not the smaller ones).

    Jackie, I’m in the UK and no one I know who isn’t a teacher can take six weeks off work to go on holiday (or even gets six weeks of holiday in a whole year!), never mind additional smaller holidays!

    We are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid leave per year, which also includes the 8 public holidays in England and Wales – so the minimum legal entitlement 28 days altogether. In practice this usually means you get 20 days’ annual leave in addition to the bank holidays, but my employer is generous so I get 25 days’ annual leave plus bank holidays. I’d always understood that you generally get less annual leave in the US, but that you have more public holidays – however, I think us Brits do a bit better than you in terms of holiday, as far as I can tell from a quick Google search.

    I know you’re trying to say that the need to be connected (or the expectation that you will be “on call”) all the time is a cultural issue, but I think it’s probably not just confined to the US. I was very grateful to get rid of my Blackberry when I left my last job and have refused to have a Blackberry or laptop for work ever since, as people start expecting you to respond in the evenings or over the weekend.

    Europeans enjoy junk media as much as we do, but I don’t think they feel the need for “absorption” in the same way as us (and I say us, because I do the same thing!) because they don’t usually get stressed in the same way. They don’t need that intense decompression AND they don’t have to be “doing something” like watching tv, to fill their off time–because they’ve learned to relax.

    I think this is one of those lovely fictions that we all like to believe about other countries because it feels like there’s somewhere else where people have got it right and we could all be just the same if we just tried. Europeans work hard and get stressed as much as anyone else in the developed world. Believe me, with my very stretching job getting even more stressful lately, I have been slumping in front of the telly watching Law & Order re-runs every evening because I feel the need to decompress and I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

    Dear Americans, we are just as crap as you are when it comes to stress, overwork, being expected to answer emails at all hours, and having difficulty relaxing. Don’t believe the hype. Love, Europe.

  72. Jesus, Jackie, you’re not kidding about the generalizing and preaching. Many of the Europeans I know are very connected online, use social networking sites, check their email a lot, and have plenty of stress. Many of the Americans I know use social networking and email a lot because it’s their connection to friends and family who are far-flung, and it doesn’t feel like work. Anyway, even if your generalizations about habits are true, it’s not like they are Doing It Better than us.

    I am with the rest of you that need to read all the comments. It is time-consuming! And it is why often I post a comment about something sort-of tangential two days after the post was written, because that’s how long it took me to catch up and that’s the subject that stuck in my mind from the comments.

  73. “They don’t need that intense decompression AND they don’t have to be “doing something” like watching tv, to fill their off time–because they’ve learned to relax.”

    Sadly not round my bit of Europe. I’m not from the cool bit where perfectly dressed people have dinner at 11 pm outside and bask in the evening warmth while bouncing elegant children on their laps. I’m from the bit where people scream at each other in cars and openly sob at work through panicked stress, and eat 5 bars of chocolate while watching shit telly through unfocused eyes….England I think they call it.

  74. AND they don’t have to be ‘doing something’ like watching tv, to fill their off time–because they’ve learned to relax

    Not to pile on here, but I always find statements like this curious, whether they’re generalizing about another country or not. Don’t people generally relax by doing something? Watching TV, reading a book, going for a walk, hanging out with friends, having a picnic, playing a game, getting a massage… it’s all doing stuff. Relaxation does not necessarily involve sleeping or sitting in zazen (which, technically, is also doing something). It just involves engaging with the world in a different way.

  75. Heh, I’m another “read all the comments” person.

    Also, (and I totally don’t mean to sound like a preachy religion person, so please let me know if I am!) what you were talking about is totally why I strictly observe the Jewish Sabbath. I’m lucky enough to be able to set boundaries for when I’m working, and everyone at my office knows that between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday, I am inaccessible by e-mail, phone, text, pretty much anything except tracking me down in person. I don’t drive or use electricity, except what’s been already turned on (like lights or heat!). I don’t spend money. Everything just is and I let it be. It’s a good time to do that absorbing. I usually do a lot of pleasure reading. It’s also a good time to have a long, leisurely meal or play board games with friends or take a walk. Most of those are totally not things I do during the rest of the week. I know that, at least for me, it’s really useful to have that time to turn everything off. I think the structure is what makes the time most effective. Like, if I just tried to take that time where I could, I don’t think I’d be very good at it. But having an absolute boundary means that I can’t make excuses. It’s sundown and, even though that comment thread is really interesting, or this experiment is going well, it needs to turn off and wait a day. It’s incredible how most things can.

    Um, end preachy religious person meanderings.

  76. Shoshie: There was an interview about just that subject on Fresh Air. The interviewee was Judith Shulevitz. They talked about her book “Making Room for the Sabbath.” I was transfixed.

  77. Looovvvely post.

    Because all I wanted to do after thinking up shit to say all day was sit there and let someone else tell me a story that was easy to follow and demanded no response.

    Yes yes yes. This is what (my part of) internet fandom is for me — I have an lj I keep solely for the purpose of reading other peoples’ fics and picspams and squees and capslock joy, and it is a little burst of joy in the shittiest day. But all the time I’m reading I have this nagging feeling in the back of my head that it isn’t good enough to just be reading other people’s genius, that I should be creating such things myself in response or else I somehow fail. I know that my talents do not lie in the arena of fandom, where other people are geeeennnniuses, but it doesn’t stop the voice making me feel bad about not participating. You are 100% right; sometimes just abosrbing is enough.

    Shoshie, that was really interesting. I’ve been pondering creating a similar day for myself each week, but without the backing of a defined (organised) religous structure and/or purpose it’s difficult to even get myself to take it seriously (let alone others).

  78. Also,

    IT WILL STILL BE THERE WHEN I GET HOME.

    Heh, I’ve been trying to learn that lesson since I found the magic of internet forums aged 14.

    That feeling of being phsyically present in one place while your mind is wondering what’s happening on a comments thread is so familiar to me I’ve almost stopped noticing it. I’ve been trying to shut those thoughts out of my head recently and keep my brain where I am and it is hard. I haven’t figured out the solution yet, at all.

  79. Shoshie,

    Over the past couple of years as technology has been leaving me behind (admittedly I’m not putting up much of a fight) I’ve thought often of the Jewish practice of observing the Sabbath and it sounds extremely appealing.

    Kate,

    Thanks for answering Rebecca. I needed explanations on the new technologies too. Now I’ve got the explanations I don’t want the products.

    In Australia we are on the verge of changing over to digital tv. Which means that all our tvs become useless over the next couple of years unless we buy a new one or a ‘set-top box.’ It hurts my mind to think of the environmental disaster all these soon to be useless tvs are going to cause. Weirdly there’s been little resistance from evironmental groups which strikes me as strange. I gave some thought to buying a new digital tv — one of those slim ones you can put on the wall so as to save space in our appartment. Saving space has become essential because I’ve acquired a few electronic things and they seem to need more double adaptors and power boards than one would think possible. And the power points are never in the right place so I need extension cords too. ‘And so it goes.’ Only not anymore. I’m not buying any more electronic shit (or a new tv — I’ll use the old one and the video store next door when I want my television ‘fixes’). I just don’t fucking need it. ‘They’ convinced me that I did but I’ve realized that I really, really don’t need it and it might actually be harmful to my health. I read Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ many years ago and what he predicted has pretty much become the scarey reality.

    Now that I’ve had my say I’ve got John Lennon’s song going around in my head. “Everyone’s talking but no body is listening.” I’ll shut up now.

  80. @thegirlfrommarz and volcanista
    Sorry everybody for over generalizing, perhaps all my continental (sorry sometimes I forget about the UK because I think of the continent more) friends are of this special subsect of folks, but I’ve lived in Berlin, Paris, Munich, Innsbruck, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, for months at a time and I found this to be true for my friends and acquaintances. In Germany, Austria, France, 6 weeks is a minimum. I have a friend at a high powered law firm where she is a lowly associate where she gets a guaranteed weekend plus an extra day sometimes (this is not what it’s like here). A few summers ago there was a huge heat wave on the continent and unfortunately a lot of older folks died and the majority of French family members DID NOT cut short their vacation time to return home–instead they actually ran out of space for bodies because they weren’t being dealt with until after the holiday (the French govt actually had an inquiry to see if too many doctors were on vacation and that’s why so many folks died). In 1992 when the common exchange rate mechanism in the EU was in danger of collapse the German head of the national bank (Schlesinger) couldn’t make a secret, extremely important meeting about the economic dangers because he was on vacation (can you imagine Bernake just jetting off for six weeks during our recent economic troubles)
    I include here a link to a great sociological blog that show the paid time off in different OECD countries (UK is twice as much as the US)
    http://contexts.org/socimages/2010/01/31/paid-holidaysvacation-days-in-the-u-s-versus-other-oecd-countries/
    And some info on how Americans don’t take the vacation days they are offered because (for at least one major reason) they fear losing their jobs:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/07/business/yourmoney/07shortcuts.html?_r=1&em&ex=1213675200&en=4b9a5777ea1fe3f3&ei=5087
    @Kate & paintmonkey
    The ability to sit and do nothing and just relax is just my first hand experience of my friends abroad and I certainly don’t claim to speak for all Europeans (and I must say I lived for semester in college in London and DID NOT find it relaxing!). But, I try as hard as can to emulate my friends because personally it is something of a revelation *for me*. I find it very different than reading blogs or watching tv *which I also do* and it is difficult for me to just relax in comparison.

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