Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Reading and the Web



I'm coming off a technology binge and trying to reconnect with what was once important to me.

The Internet is a black hole. I lost myself to the Internet one year ago and now I'm recovering, trying to retrieve myself from the bits and pieces of cyberspace. As if during one of my trances, I was ground into two-dimensional data and now I'm floating around helplessly, looking everywhere but seeing nothing.

None of this makes any sense to me. How I can sit for hours in front of a computer and stare. But that is what controls me. I'm writing this essay to understand how technology isolates me from my sensory experience and why I get so addicted to this feeling of (dis)connectedness.

I used to think that technology was different from other pursuits. One year ago I began blogging. I experimented with creating web pages and exploring the vast corners of the Net. I introduced myself to virtual communities and regularly commented on people's blogs. There was something I was after. I suppose I naively believed in this new interface called Web 2.0 and thought it would bring me, if not happiness, then a feeling of connection.

That is not to say I haven't made any friendships since I began blogging. I have. And I continue to enjoy reading people's blogs and commenting on them. But as a writer, I want more. This is my makeup, you see. The Internet lured me deeper and deeper into a virtual world, where I became obsessed with creating profiles, new accounts, new services, new buttons, new widgets, and the elusive target of my satisfaction kept inching away.

Rather than describe how I've been lost in cyberspace for these last twelve months, I'd like to talk about what was once important to me.

Both the Internet and my favorite pastime, reading, seemed to offer me the same thing: immersion. I love the deep immersion of a text. It doesn't even have to be a novel. I used to retreat into the library and spend whole days in solitude.

But the immersion of the text and the immersion of the screen differ in significant ways. Lost in the library, lost in a book, involves active participation. You can become immersed in a television show, but it does not provide the same experience. Why not?

I believe it has something to do with the senses. Television only stimulates two senses (visual and auditory). The Internet stimulates perhaps three or four (visual, auditory, tactile, imagination). Reading simulates perhaps four or five (visual, auditory, tactile, imagination, memory).

The library has become a sort of symbol in my life. I've spent vast amounts of time in libraries. Throughout the years, there always seemed to be a library I could retreat to for safety and peace of mind. I developed relationships to these libraries by visiting them on a regular basis.

While the physical space of the library is there before I arrive, the mental space is my own creation. The mental space is part of the book I'm reading and my own imagination. The physical space of the library is silent and empty. I enjoy the transference that takes place while I'm reading in the library. Of course the experience of reading can happen anywhere; one can become transported from any location. However, because of the silence that allows for meditation, the library seems to open up my imagination tenfold.

The Internet is also a virtual world, albeit a noisy and cluttered one. Oftentimes after working many hours on my web pages I stand back from my work to appreciate it. Yes, I've accomplished something today. But where is it? And what is it? So I've changed my widgets around. Or I've customized the appearance of my blog. Perhaps I've even added a podcast. Nevertheless my work feels lacking in substance and never fully complete. A web page exists but you cannot touch it like you can a book or a painting. There is the sense that everything held up in this virtual world we call the Internet is likely to disappear at any moment. At the whims of a Google ranking and a body of readers in constant flux, who knows if you exist or not?

But when I'm in the library reading, I'm sure I exist. I'm so sure I never even have to think about whether I exist or not. The Net is constantly reminding me of myself. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, nearly every media is geared toward me and how I want to present myself. The inevitable consequence is that I become sick of myself and yearn for another activity to help me forget (me).



I miss the childlike experience of reading in a library. When the physical space disappears and I am fully immersed in a novel, so immersed that my imagination feels like it is receiving a direct communication from the author's mind. The pictures and words are coming in so clearly that I am momentarily awakened, that is, conscious, inside another world.

For a while I was looking for a foothold in cyberspace; a place to stand; but the Internet is like quicksilver. The more work I put into my web pages, the less stable my tiny ledge seems to feel. Now I'm seeking more solid experiences outside of the screen. Until I reached a burnout, or many burnouts, I never truly appreciated reading, and having an empty library, an empty mind.

I love reading but it is hard for me to get addicted to it. Why? Because it is not such an easy pleasure to obtain. The pleasure takes time and patience and the reward comes but not too soon.

In the library barriers come down, the barrier between my mind and the mind of the author, the barrier between truth and fiction, actuality and dreams.

The Internet also dissolves barriers. Geographical distances are breached, multitudes of cultures are brought together, different age groups and income levels coincide. But the time and space of the Internet is compressed; everything moves faster than in daily life. While it takes two days for a postman to deliver your mail, Yahoo does it in less than two minutes.

Rather than contracting, time expands when I'm sitting in the library. As I enter the fictional world of a novel, time becomes infinite and extends in all directions, across history. My imagination also expands as if in tandem with the words I'm reading. I'm not the same person; I'm not the same mind.

On the Internet I skate on the surface of information, web pages, headlines, profiles. But in the library I probe mental worlds, unravel abstractions, witness people from different centuries interacting, and feel their emotions.

So I've returned to the library to write my novel. I've returned to the library to read. I've returned to the library to philosophize on these and other topics. To ask questions. I'm looking for a wider world than the World Wide Web.

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5 comments:

tashabud said...

Chris,
I enjoyed reading this post. You got me thinking, too, about what I really want to achieve from blogging. What I like about the web is that I get an almost immediate reaction to what I'm writing or commenting on. It's like me having conversations with more than one person at the same time and stil in the privacy of my own space.

If only I have more time to read, I'd like to read more of the wonderful novels, poems, commentaries, prose and essays by talented people like yourself that the web has to offer from its vast Domain. As you might have noticed, my lack of new updates for my blogs is because, I spend most of my time reading and commenting rather than writing my own. Lol. I should discipline myself better so I can be more productive in writing my novel. It's hard, though, because like I said, there are just so many intereting posts to read in the world wide web.

Tasha

Lethe said...

"What I like about the web is that I get an almost immediate reaction to what I'm writing or commenting on. It's like me having conversations with more than one person at the same time and stil in the privacy of my own space."

What a great response, Tasha! To be sure, you've been a blogger longer than I have and thus have developed a network of friendship. What you describe about the "immediate reaction" from other voices is also what I long for. I long for this huge conversation with the world that can take place almost instantaneously.

I'm so glad you said that. It really rings true for me.

Now, on another topic, I hear your doubts a lot of the time in your comments. You say "as you might have noticed my lack of new updates." Don't worry about it. You write when you can. There is a power beyond us that guides. Let the power guide you. Don't doubt it. When there is silence, there is usually a reason. When the writing comes thick and fast, also a reason. Follow that.

Chris

The_Light's_Herald said...

you're right. people write about the past, and the what-ifs because if they had it now they wouldn't be blogging. wait, this also applies to me.

Jeremy said...

I think the specialness of libraries is because when we enter them we are entering a place of the like-minded, those who, like us, are there because they are searching for knowledge, for enlightenment.

This, plus the mandatory quietness, makes a visit to a library not unlike a visit to a church or other place of worship.

Regarding the reading of books and reading off the internet, there is evidence to suggest that excessive internet reading affects the synapses in the brain, resulting in a growing inability to concentrate for long periods, like in reading a book.

Thus we can't immerse ourselves in a book as we once did. There was an article, which I recommend, in the Atlantic magazine a couple of months ago on this very topic, called (I think) "Is Google Making Us Stupid?".

As an avid book reader, but who now reads voluminously off the internet, the numbers of books I now read is about a third of what it was a few years ago. One reason is I can't concentrate as I once did. Doubtless my internet reading has altered my brain synapses.

Lethe said...

And mine too! Internet reading has shortened my attention span no doubt. But my new video book chat will motivate to read entire books and then critique them, which means I will have to read them critically and carefully. So on the one hand the Net has made me lazier, and on the other it has made me more accountable.