the night thoreau spent on the internet

The other day, I saw a YouTube commercial that told me my armpits might be the wrong color (!?!). I watched the commercial twice because I couldn’t believe I’d understood it right. Surely it must have been talking about pit stains on clothing. But no, armpit discoloration (!?!) is apparently a Thing I should react to by buying a particular brand of deodorant.

I stopped watching TV after high school. For a long time, the few good things on it didn’t seem worth bearing the commercials for. It’s funny how things change and a decade later, I’m watching high art commercial free on TV and getting so tired of trying to dodge inane commercials on the Internet that I sometimes wonder if the Internet is even worth it anymore.

Technology and materialism are on my mind because I’m teaching Transcendentalism in my junior/senior English classes. Transcendentalism is my favorite unit to teach. I forget sometimes that a lot of adults don’t know what it is, but thanks to greeting cards and bumper stickers, most people know Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century neck-bearded dude who lived alone for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond and stopped paying taxes to protest the Mexican-American war. This was during the Industrial Revolution. Transcendentalists cautioned that new technology–like, you know, trains–was distancing people from nature and each other, that modern conveniences were actually making life more complicated and less connected. It’s crazy how prescient these writings are.

It turns out Thoreau was also a mindfulness pioneer. He writes that he went to Walden Pond “to live deliberately,” and so much of the writing he did there is about noticing and being present. During the Transcendentalism unit, I do mindfulness activities with my students, including eating and walking meditation (the latter is really just going to the beach) to expand their ideas about what it means to be deliberate in daily life. I also ask them to experiment with living deliberately by giving up three “conveniences” for a week and adding one thing to their daily routine that Thoreau would approve of. I’ve had kids give up video games, social media, listening to prerecorded music, makeup, mirrors, microwaves, sugar, driving…one year, a girl camped out in her backyard for a week. On the first day of the experiment, I showed these videos in class to contextualize Thoreau in the present day:

After, one of my students showed me Zen Pencils (an awesome web comic to which you can submit quotes for Gavin Aung Than to turn into comics), specifically “129. Marc Maron: The Social Media Generation” (check it out!). The comic struck a chord with me because I do the living deliberately experiment with my students, and this year, I decided to give up “pointless” Internet browsing and to write something every day. The latter makes the former hard because it means I’m on the Internet when I’m trying to avoid it. But what has been harder is determining what is “pointless” browsing and what isn’t. I told myself I could check email or otherwise use the Internet to actively communicate with people or conduct business. What I was trying to stop doing was cooking dinner with Gmail open, constantly glancing over at my laptop to see if I have a new email or chat. I do this a lot even though it makes me less present for whatever I’m doing and bums me out when I don’t see any new emails or chats.

To complicate matters, in my ongoing attempt to have a rich Internet life without Facebook, I started a song of the day blog on Tumblr. I don’t fully get Tumblr yet and it annoys me to no end that I can’t comment on people’s posts. I understand from a New York Times article that the idea is to promote meaningful, civilized discourse on the Internet, which is cool, but I suspect most people default to liking or reblogging without commentary, which isn’t discourse at all. And yet, I keep refreshing my dashboard to see if anyone has done just that. Is it pointless? If it’s not pointless once, when does it become pointless? More than once a day? More than once an hour? I don’t know. All I know is, in terms of the Internet, I feel unsatisfied. In terms of my experiment, nothing feels different because I don’t think I’m really doing the experiment.

When my class discussed the “Digitals” and “I Forgot My Phone” videos, one of my students commented that technology is just evolution. None of it’s bad; it’s how you use it. This is true. We can use technology deliberately and mindfully or we can become, as Thoreau would say, tools of our tools. But how do we know the difference? I’ve felt for a couple of years now like the Internet is dangling in a crevasse, with knowledge and intimate connection on one side and commerce and social exploitation on the other. Ten years ago, the Internet wasn’t primarily a place for shopping. It was a way for people from all over the world to connect with each other, not over what we bought but over what we thought. We created content out of our own lived experience and imagination. Of course this still happens, but I fear it’s being drowned out by blaring YouTube commercials, reactive status updates, and addictive but empty feedback.

Sometimes, I dream of pirate Internet. Alternative URLs would start with “qqq” instead of “www” and they would direct those of us in the know to an underground Internet, a place where we were in control. It would be like the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49, another prescient text I’ve taught in my senior English classes.

2 responses

  1. hi. this is a really great entry. have you continued to swear off pointless browsing?

    1. Thanks. Regarding “pointless” browsing, it’s one day at a time. I realize now it’s not so much browsing even; it’s the pointless refreshing to see if anyone has commented on or liked something I’ve posted somewhere or if there’s anything I can comment on or like. It really is like the comic I linked to here–this need to be acknowledged and validated. Which is an OK need, but it raises questions about why we don’t feel fulfilled already and if we’re somehow, in our pursuance of fulfillment, making it harder and harder to obtain (I may have checked Instagram at least once while typing this reply)?

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