Eschatology for Modern Living

Digital Media: to Dip and Dab or to Chase the Dragon?

That is the question, dear constant reader. But first…

You’re probably wondering where I’ve been for the past year and change if you’ve been a dear constant reader in the past. The truth — because I don’t believe in giving a true friend the run-around — is that I’ve been in a drug-induced comatose state for thirteen months, and have only recently just awoken (Please note: never take someone named L-Train at their word; it is not just an innocent hit of high-powered blotter acid).

Jesus, I’ve missed a lot! For two days I’ve been alternately chugging black coffee and smoking hash while camped in front of the computer and buried amongst newspapers, trying to absorb the backlog of raw data. I can only come to the conclusion that in my absence the world has spiraled even further into total madness: The Gulf of Mexico is choking on black bile. Health care and financial reform has passed Congress. Racism has been institutionalized in Arizona. Russia and the U.S. are swapping spies left and right a week after our Presidents grab burgers and fries together. In North Korea, people have apparently been paying in cigarettes for amputations without anesthesia since the 1990’s, only we didn’t know about it till just now. The Middle East is in chaos (oh, wait… that’s always been the case; only the details change). Terrorists are doing a really terrible job of blowing us up at home in the U.S. — despite their best efforts — but over in Afghanistan things are going just swimmingly for them. Speaking of Afghanistan, we mysteriously just discovered a massive vein of raw lithium beneath it (Bolivia currently has the monopoly on that, and you need it to make lithium batteries, on which everything seems to run nowadays) which could yield over a trillion dollars. I’m sure that has nothing to do with why we’ve just decided to stay there indefinitely, making it our nation’s longest war. Buried on page ten, you can find reports of British Petroleum lobbying the British government to release the Lockerbie Bomber last year to protect a $900 million oil-and-gas exploration deal off the Libyan coast. I always wondered about the worth of the lives of the 270 people (189 of them Americans) who died on that 1988 Lockerbie airliner flight over Scotland; apparently, those people were worth exactly $3,333,333.33 a head to B.P. I hope they’re happy about the money they made off that deal, since they’ve hemorrhaged billions in cleaning up the spill already and they will continue to for decades hence. Small comfort to the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve had their whole way of life destroyed all around the Gulf.

I feel like with all these crazy things happening — some tragic, some terrific — there should be some amount of celebration or mourning or at least a panicked call to action going on amongst our generation. But when I go outside to get more orange juice, grapefruit, take-and-bake pizzas and drugs, I only see tired and emotionless zombies walking around. These creatures couldn’t be motivated to organize their fucking DVD collection, much less drive down to the Gulf and wash oil out of a dolphin’s blowhole with dish soap. On top of that, most of these zombie-people don’t know how happy they should be that some (admittedly watered down and not-as-great-as-it-should-be) of the most historic legislation in our American story has been passed in the last year. Presidents have fought for health care reform for decades and when and if it works out as planned, we’ll be the last first world country to have universal health care. To boot, we haven’t had any new financial regulation (thanks to Reagan and his cronies, we’ve only had the opposite) between the end of the Great Depression and this week. All of this and yet, as I said, not that many people seem to care much. Why is that? I’m forced to wonder…

What is dominating our generation’s attention so much more effectively than the social movements of the 1960’s and other decades dominated their young generations’ attention? What dominates all of our time so much so that we can’t pay attention to the triumphs and tragedies all around us? What is it that could seduce us away from progress, from success? Well, its interesting you should ask; take a look at this fucking graph:

(Credit: Forrester via North American Technographics Benchmark Surveys)

In just the past five years, the amount of time people spend online has doubled, while the amount of time they spend watching TV has stayed exactly the same. Meanwhile, we are all reading fewer magazines and even fewer newspapers. The radio? Fucking forget about it. That’s boring because those are just voices, right? Only boring people don’t have faces. If you do the math, the average person spent a total of about 32 hours a week in 2004 doing all five of the activities above. In 2009, the average person spends 37 hours a week doing the same things. On top of that, while it seems like there’s no time left in the day for us to use the internet any more than we already do, researchers are now finding that we spend 15% more of our time online with social networking like Facebook or Twitter than we did five years ago. So, not only are we online all fucking day, we’re spending more time doing useless and unimportant shit online. Why read the news online when you could read this lovely tweet from @GBusey (yes, that’s Gary Busey): “Here’s a good way to never make any friends: Smell your palm after every time you shake someone’s hand.”

Keep in mind, these averages are thrown way off by old people, who we all know never use the internet. Many of you are probably wondering how much worse these numbers are when they’re focused only on people under — lets say — eighteen years old. Take a look at this data published first in the New York Times (in the article, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”):


The numbers really speak for themselves, but I’ll speak for them too, just in case you missed something while checking a tweet in the other window… Young people spend only 38 minutes a day with print media of some kind (that includes books, newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes and fucking baseball trading cards: anything printed in ink on paper after being checked for spelling and grammar). Apart from those 38 minutes, the same young people are spending ten hours a day staring at some kind of screen or another, whether its their iPod, their laptop, their TV or their Playstation 3.

Let me repeat that: ten hours per day. That’s seventy hours every calendar week. That’s twenty more hours per week than I spend at work, and after that many hours at work every week I want to go postal and kill everyone around me. If you allow for eight hours of sleep a night, that leaves only four or five hours a day to take care of eating food, going to school and doing homework (if you’re noticing the totals don’t add up, it’s because these youth spend about two to four hours of their days on average secretly online through some portable device while they’re either supposed to be at school or in bed asleep), basic hygiene and face-to-face human interactions. That isn’t much time.

In 1999, when I was sixteen years old, we spent on average seven hours per day staring at those same screens doing the same things (okay, we didn’t have iPods yet, but we did have fucking portable electronic devices which drained our time). That’s still pretty bad, but at least it only added up to just under 50 hours per week (when you do that math, that’s about 11 years of your life if you keep it up till you croak at 78). Think about it: if the youth of today continues their habits, spending 70 hours per week online or in front of a TV, that adds up to 300 hours per month (or 12 days a month) that this generation has wasted on Twitter. That adds up to about 150 days per year. That’s about 10,500 days, or 28.75 years of your life that you will spend staring at the TV or computer.

This could be you at age 40 if you're not careful...

That means that even if I continue using these technologies at the same rate I did when I was 16 for my whole life (which I admit to increasing for several years before dramatically and self-consciously tapering their use off), I will be able to say on my deathbed I’ve used them for approximately 18 years less than someone who was born just ten years after me.

Eighteen years. Eighteen years today’s teens just might spend staring at screens and checking Facebook status updates, cyber-harassing each other, posting tweets, sexting, browsing “shooped” pictures on the /b/ section of 4chan, posting 12 gigs of sexually suggestive pictures of themselves to photobucket.com, watching pirated episodes of reality television shows online and jerking off to broadband porn. Will this generation’s lives be any better for those extra 18 years? Will they be more educated, or less educated? Will they be more tuned into reality, or less? Will they do great things with their lives, or will they be distracted and confounded into oblivion? What do you think, dear constant reader? Do the math yourself:

Eighteen years — plainly and simply — is 23% of the average person’s total lifespan.

Twenty-three percent, and the modern person spends about 28% of their lives just sleeping. You guessed it: filling our lives up with all this electronic crap has left today’s generation with just 49% of their own lives left to themselves. 49% left to spend on the things that really count. For someone born just ten years earlier like me, that percentage will probably be something more like 72% (even if we keep up the same nasty habits we had at 16 forever). Given that, don’t you think you’re short-changing yourselves a little bit wasting so much time on this crap? Wouldn’t you rather spend a little more than half your life on the things that really matter?

So, if you’re under the age of 18, or if you just happen to have way too much free time on your hands and no fucking idea how to spend it doing anything productive, listen to this:

In eighteen years, a person could write ten best-selling books, travel around the world multiple times, get married and divorced more than once, raise a child through adolescence, begin a career and start another one after second thoughts. In eighteen years, you could fight a revolution (or drag out the longest war in a nation’s history till it sinks the empire, for that matter). But instead of doing any of those things, this generation will spend eighteen years tweeting and retweeting wisdom-nuggets such as “When using a toilet plunger, always remember to keep your mouth shut.” If you’re not careful, you hopeless internet addicts out there will ruin your own lives and turn your brains to soup before you realize what the fuck is happening.

People will tell you they can multitask. People will tell you that even though they’re online, they’re staying in touch with their friends through Facebook so it’s not really anti-social. People will tell you that they’re educating themselves by looking up random facts on Wikipedia as their curiosity strikes. People will tell you that sites like Twitter can make a real and positive difference in the world and point to events like the demonstrations in Iran after their last election (protesters used Twitter to keep in touch with each other and get the word out about new demonstrations when the government had shut down all other forms of communication; but do you really think those same protests wouldn’t have happened if Twitter didn’t exist? Iranians seemed to have no trouble throwing themselves a full-blown Revolution back in ’79 and they didn’t need no Twitter for that). Finally, people will tell you that things are just changing and we need to change with them.

To that I say, Bullshit!

This rampant multitasking, overexposure to stimuli and dependence on the internet — and especially on sites like Twitter and Facebook — is melting our brains. Scientists have for several years now been studying the ability to multitask and the effects of prolonged multitasking. They’ve found that people who think they can multitask well actually can’t at all, and that when they do it for too long, their brains become overstimulated and actually start to crave distractions later. When we surf the net with ten different browser windows open at once — Twitter and Facebook on the first two Firefox tabs of course — and the TV on in the background, trying to pay attention to all of them at once for hours on end, we’re actually training our brains to expect this much stimuli all the time. Then, when we try to sit down and read a book for an hour or go to sleep at night, we find that our minds won’t slow down and we get bored within minutes or lay wide awake for hours tossing and turning. Our brains won’t slow down, won’t shut off, because we just spent the whole day overloading them. And we wonder why….

We wonder why during the same years internet use among adults shot up 117% insomnia rates among adults suddenly ballooned? Is it any wonder why Americans sleep an entire hours less per night on average today than they did fifty years ago? If you want me to do that extrapolating the math trick from before, skipping all the babbling along the way, that means the following: a person born in the last ten years will probably be asleep for 21.75 years of their life. However, that same person’s grandparents will have spent a much greater portion of their life asleep: 24.7 years.

Do you really think, dear constant reader, that losing several years of sleep and gaining over twenty years of useless times spent on collegehumor.com and the like has benefited us? I think, rather, that its run this generation a deficit. As for future generations, lets just say I’m terrified if these trends continue. We are already at a point in human history where the global population has doubled up to 7 billion in one human lifetime, after remaining below two billion for all of human history up until 1927. The atmosphere is already boiling off the globe right above our heads. In other words, with very real problems like that to deal with, I don’t think we need to add to the mix tampering with humanity’s neurological evolution. Especially since these nasty habits we’re developing tend to make us slowly more idiotic, which doesn’t help us solve complicated problems.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m just a bitter asshole without friends. This may even be true after my yearlong coma. But rest assured, I’m not saying things like Twitter, Facebook, TV and the internet in general are bad. I’m well aware that these things can be useful tools for communication and even education. However, when it comes to anything other than traditional narcotic drugs, I’m a fan of the old saying, “All things in moderation.” If people these days used the internet and the like for half as many hours per day, I think we would all be happier and healthier for it. Perhaps then we could reap some of the benefits of these modern inventions without becoming their slaves.

Make no mistake: in massive doses, social networking and multimedia entertainment is every bit as addictive as crack cocaine or heroin. If you don’t believe me, just try taking away the cellphone or iPod of anyone under the age of 15 today. I guarantee you: they will either burst into tears or literally physically attack you. Now, call me crazy, but I haven’t seen that same behavior in anyone else besides a meth addict. That’s addiction.

So, if you’re an addict, take a look in the mirror today. Ask yourself if you really want to be dependent on a machine for entertainment and happiness. At least things like weed and sex are all-natural. Machines were made by human hands, and how many good things were ever made by those?

Postscript

If you’re worried you might be an internet addict — or perhaps especially if you’re certain you’re not — click here to take a test and find out. It’s for real; developed by a genuine PhD and everything. You might be surprised or relieved by the results you get.

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