Last updated: February 10, 1999
I have recently received many comments (complaints?) about my recent lack of presence on the internet. In fact, you faithful rant readers may have even come to the conclusion that I have nothing left to talk about. Of course as my students will attest, nothing could be further from the truth. But I have been wrestling with a long term bout of computer ennui which can be explained. Perhaps you, too have experienced the same...
For months, the plastic box and screen in the corner of my family room have been not only been disinteresting, but also a source of vaguely felt repulsion and disgust. At first I thought I was just fed up with the nitpicky little computer glitches which were constantly interrupting my ability to perform simple tasks such as access the internet, download email and print. Anyone cyber-savvy enough to be reading this rant is aware that these time-sucking inconveniences are part of the cost of doing computer business. For a while I believed that when whatever problem-du-jour was fixed I would happily resume my life of electronic domination. But soon I came to realize that I was viewing these glitches not as small setbacks or even perceptually insurmountable hurdles of massive proportion, but rather as convenient excuses not to participate in computer life.
But why? Could seeking colorful, hip and timely information no longer thrill me? Could I no longer feel the instantaneous connection with busy and distant friends from their email missives? Could webpage authorship no longer confer joyous pride and status? How and when had the fresh, ever-changing, razzle-dazzle cyber-world become as stale as eighteen inch black and white television? What in the world was wrong with me? Looking at that computer in the corner, thinking about turning it on and partaking in all the modern cultural necessities it beckoned to provide became, to me, depressing. Was I depressed? Surely lack of interest in connecting with one's friends, lack of interest in the world at large and refusal to lift a single finger to press a button which would effectively turn on the universe could be a serious sign of depression. But I was still partaking of the world in a great many ways - just not through the computer. I still enjoyed connecting with friends in person and on the phone; I still wrote; I still enjoyed magazines and books. In fact, when I did find myself searching the web for information, it was most frequently an Amazon.com book search. So I figured I am not clinically depressed, just computer depressed. And I think I may have pinpointed the cause, which is of course, the computer itself.
No matter how many advances are made, how many bridges the computing industry is supposed to have built, computers themselves remain limiting. Computer use limits our bodies to a certain chair, our faces to a certain direction and our minds to the single screen of information in front of us. Computer programs which "allow" us to do many new and different functions are just complicated enough to force us to constantly maintain a focus on the process of the task rather than the creative force driving the task. Most of us would rather sit and think, take a walk, or hash something important out on paper first before processing the idea at the computer. This is probably because we simply do not think as well while locked in front of the green screen and keyboard. We do not think as well because we are limited. Look back on the best or most creative idea you ever had and remember how it came about. Were you in the shower? Were you skiing, cooking, chatting with a friend? Probably. And you were probably not sitting in your secretarial chair in front of your computer, although that is very likely where you remembered some important detail or finished the final draft of some carefully worded document. Many theorists suggest that our best thinking, and not coincidentally our moments of greatest contentment, occur when we use both the right and left brain modes of thought. But computer-use does not promote this whole-brain thinking. Right brain thinking is holistic and feeling centered; good music, a warm bath and pretty surroundings appeal to our right brain. The right brain processes nonverbal information like facial expressions and tone of voice when we are talking to someone, and is particularly good at perceiving things all-at-once. Left brain thinking is linear and rationally focused. Reading, writing and mathematical manipulations appeal to the left brain. The left brain is particularly adept and scrutinizing one thing at a time. Computing, in all it's forms including surfing the web and emailing, is primarily a left brain activity.
But so, say critics of Alisa, is reading a book, especially the one's you read with no pictures. At least while web surfing one's right brain can get some thrill perceiving funny gifs and unusual graphics. True. And in some ways. webpages and the whole internet manner of presenting material may be changing the way we process information and even the way we use our brains. (For more information on this idea, check out my suggested readings below.) But what I, or anyone else, experiences using the computer is frankly and undeniably different from what is experienced not on the computer. What we miss while using the computer is holistic, sensual experience. We would all agree that a trip to the cyber-zoo, while up-close and informational, is just not the same experience as going to the real live zoo. Given a choice most young children will still opt for the real zoo just to be able to run around, pick up a real feather and smell an unwashed elephant. Children love sensual experiences. But using the computer we are not sensually oriented; we experience our bodies as indifferent adjuncts to the all important sense of narrowly focused sight while we busily utilize our left brains. While parts of me partake in the enjoyment of reading email communication, whole bigger parts of me cannot enjoy the sound of voices over the phone or facial expressions and touches in person. When I spend time reading information posted on the web, whole parts of me miss time feeling the weight of a book in my hand and assessing my reading progress by glancing at how many pages I have turned. Married to the screen, I miss experiencing the bodily pleasures of changing my reading position, snuggling up on the couch with my feet up or walking around in the garden while still buried in an interesting article. On the computer, one screen image at a time, I can never flip through the glossy photos of a style magazine digesting its gestalt in the changing amber afternoon light. Even though I can explore the Louvre or the Library of Congress, I am limited.
But then we knew all this before the whole computer-thing started, didn't we?
Thanks for listening.
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Copyright Alisa M. Shubb, 1999