Wasting time

Alan Lightman’s closing essay “Prisoner of the Wired World,” from his book A Sense of the Mysterious, is interesting, although not entirely original in its argument. But it has made me think a lot over the week or so since I finished it, which surely is the mark of a good essay. Lightman opens the essay this way:

Not long ago, while sitting at my desk at home, I suddenly had the horrifying realization that I no longer waste time.

He goes on to describe how connected we all are, through our computers and our cell phones and other forms of technology, and how all this connectivity means that the pace of life is faster and we spend more and more of our time working, at the expense of enjoying the kind of down time that nourishes our souls. He lists what he sees as the unpleasant effects of the wired world (developing each item in a paragraph or so):

1. An obsession with speed and an accompanying impatience for all that does not move faster and faster… 2. A sense of overload with information and other stimulation… 3. A mounting obsession with consumption and material wealth… 4. Accommodation to the virtual world… 5. Loss of silence… 6. Loss of privacy…

The essay is a call to resist this speed and unthinking acceptance of technology; Lightman argues passionately for taking time to be still, doing nothing, and letting our spirits flourish.

I’m drawn by this argument, although suspicious of it at the same time. I find that people who criticize modern technology, especially the internet, rarely take the time to acknowledge sufficiently all the good it can do people. The internet can be a distraction and it can be a way to keep us chained to our jobs (answering student emails, for example) so that we rarely enjoy true leisure, but can’t it also be a place where that leisure can happen, where we can explore our minds and spirits, express our thoughts, and find people who think the same way we do? I find the internet to be an exciting, freeing place, a place where I can take risks with writing and read people doing the same thing. At the same time as I’m writing my blog posts, though, I’m sometimes checking my work email. I suspect tons of people have this complicated relationship to technology, and I wish I found it reflected in the writing on technology I encounter.

That said, I believe strongly in doing nothing and think I should do more of it. I suspect, also, that I should spend less time on the internet, hard as that may be. There’s a restful quality to time spent goofing off outdoors, for example, that I don’t experience goofing off online. But however I decide to do nothing, I hope to be able to keep doing it.

So I’ve been thinking about Lightman’s essay and have been more conscious of moments I allow my mind to drift. One of my favorite moments is in the morning when I have a chance to linger in bed after I’ve woken up. I think about my day, but I also think about … nothing. My mind works this way when I’m walking or riding my bike too. These things don’t feel like work to me; they feel like an escape from work.  A friend asked me today what I think about when I’m riding, and I had a hard time answering her. Sometimes I think about things I’m working on or plans for when I get home, but other times — a lot of the time — I can’t even say what’s on my mind. I like this. I like riding for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that it gives my mind a break.

So even if I don’t fully agree with him, I’m grateful to Lightman for making me think of all this — for reminding me of the value of doing nothing and wasting time.


Filed under Books, Lists, Poetry

12 responses to “Wasting time

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly Dorothy. Technology doesn’t have to be all work. We are the ones in control and can use technology as we please. But as you mention you sometimes check your work email while you are blogging. I think that has to do in part with American culture. The work ethic is still alive and strong in this country and I think we have never been a culture that has supported doing nothing. I am all for doing nothing and when I take a day off or a vacation from work my coworkers always want to know what I am going to do. Most of the time I don’t plan on doing anything other than puttering around but I always feel pressured into saying I am going to do something that is sufficiently acceptable to fill my “time off.”


  2. verbivore

    Yes, I agree too. I have a complicated relationship with technology – I love spending time reading things online and looking stuff up. Researching something online can be a lot of fun and take you to places you’d never imagine (also to places you might not want to go :-)). But at the same time, I wouldn’t do well without long walks and quiet down time, so in that sense he’s right to remind us to remain wary of how technology affects our time.


  3. JCR

    I have read very littie Lightman, but when I read “Good Benito” I was vastly disappointed… his writing is very varied, and depending on the genre, he can lose a reader…


  4. This sounds like an interesting essay. My tendency is to agree more fully with what I gather to be Lightman’s thesis, based on your post. I agree that the internet (for example) can be great. (I wouldn’t have a blog without it!) But I disagree with Stefanie when she says: “We are the ones in control and can use technology as we please.” I mean, technically this is true, but practically it is not. We have technology shoved down our throats; our acceptance, or approval, of it is often not an issue. We like to think of technology as ideologically neutral, but it comes to us within a whole host of working assumptions. For example, this work ethic, and capitalist “efficiency”. Our private use of the internet for leisure (our blogs, or whatever) is merely a byproduct of technology’s function for work, and as an array of consumer items (by which it does further work, by keeping the economy afloat).

    I, for one, have an extremely difficult time pulling away from the internet (and much of my leisure time spent there feels like work–like, I “must” get through my bloglines feeds!). My quiet time, needed for fruitful reading, among other things, suffers enormously because of it.


  5. Interesting post and interesting comments. I could not do my work at the library if I didn’t have a computer, and fax machine and all the other stuff that comes with it. When the power goes off and they have to fix something I am literally at a loss. I cannot function there without technology and it appears the way we are going (in my library at least–for better or for worse, whether I agree or not) is Forward–more and more technology. I’m not sure I could do without my home computer. I can certainly function without it, but I am so totally dependent on it (mentally?) that when the internet goes down (and my computer is old, so it happens often) I get all nervous and impatient and think what am I going to do…How did that happen? Most of my life has been lived without all this technology, but now I couldn’t get on without it, I don’t think. On the flip side, I am all for wasting time. I think I do do a fair amount of that. I wonder sometimes where my weekends go, and then I think I stare at the walls sometimes just spacing off. And I am all for silence! I sometimes just like to sit and read or do nothing and have nothing turned on–no radio or TV, and I think people don’t like doing that much. I think silence is bliss, but it seems like people like noise–loud car stereos, iPods, music, TV. Don’t people know how blissful the quiet can be?


  6. It’s a funny thing this, isn’t it? Sometimes my blog seems like the perfect relaxation and sometimes it seems like more homework. I agree that speed is the great enemy of serenity in the contemporary world. I find the more rushed I am, the less spacious life is, the less creative I feel. I need a lot of doing nothing around writing anything I might feel proud of. I should think that cycling is the perfect place to be free of thoughts. I have to work really hard to get my mind to shut up, but I always feel better for it afterwards.


  7. I guess I’m on the fence with this one. I do see how too much connectedness can be a problem. But, I also agree that technology also adds to the enjoyment of our leisure time. I guess as with most things in life, it’s how you use the technology and if you have a balance in your life or not. By the way, I have moved my blog (formerly PfeifferBooknotes) to Booknotes by Lisa at http://booknotesbylisa.blogspot.com if you want to update your blogroll. I just got everything changed over and have been painting all week, so there aren’t any new posts as of yet. But, I start on my new job tomorrow, and I’ll get back into a routine soon.


  8. This sounds an interesting essay; the initial idea of losing the technology that intrudes into our lives is seducing but there has to be a balance. Yes it would be nice not to have work email, but I would miss the convenience of home email, and internet shopping and blogging etc… These days I think it requires quite a bit of self-discipline to allow yourself some quiet time away from it; for me it is making myself go out in the garden – digging and weeding gives me the same peaceful state of mind you describe when you are cycling.


  9. well, as someone who is reading your blog while attending a conference, I definitely have a complicated relationship with technology! I too am suspicious of people who are so reticent of technology (I would be quite lonely this week without the internet) but I also could benefit from not carrying my blackberry and pager around everywhere I go, as well. I do need more do nothing time, that I have no doubt…


  10. Stefanie — you are so right about the work ethic, and I know I have bought into it strongly, even though I don’t want to. I can understand why you’d be frustrated at people wanting to know what you will DO when you’re on vacation!

    Verbivore — yeah, technology has made things like researching SO much easier, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do without it. But we really do need to think about how it’s affecting our lives in good and bad ways. It’s so easy just to use it unthinking, but that would be a big mistake.

    JCR — I am interested in his other work; he seems to have such varied talents. Your comment makes me more curious — too bad you didn’t like that particular book — even a negative response can make me curious sometimes!

    Richard — I agree with you about technology’s “working assumptions,” that it is not ideologically neutral. Lightman mentions Sherry Turkle, a writer on technology who makes similar arguments and whom I have read for school — she argues quite well that “the tools we use to think change the way we think” or something similar; for example, work processing can change our way of writing or powerpoint can limit free and creative thinking. Very interesting stuff. I hope you can find a balance between the good that the internet brings and the need for quiet time.

    Danielle — I experience the same thing; when I can’t have access to the internet it makes me nervous and unhappy. I don’t even want to admit how often my reading gets interrupted because I want to check something online. And I so agree with you about silence! I’m someone who doesn’t like background noise — no music and certainly no TV. Your sitting and doing nothing sounds blissful!

    Litlove — I feel that way too about blogging — I love it but sometimes it’s just another chore. I suppose that’s inevitable; everything done regularly is going to get a bit stale now and then. Your comment about space and quiet makes me want to disappear to a remote cabin without any phones or internet access just to see what happens!

    Lisa — thank you for leaving the link; I’ll update everything soon. I hope you enjoy your new job!

    Eloise — it certainly does require self-discipline to get away from the technology; gardening sounds like a wonderful way to spend some time by yourself!

    Courtney — I love how technology can make me feel so connected to people — people I’ve met and people I haven’t. I can see how reading blogs and emailing people would be a comfort on the road, although when I travel I usually don’t take a laptop and actually enjoy a bit of a break.


  11. zhiv

    Hey DW–I saw this post and loved it immediately, and it made me want to read Lightman’s essay. This is right up there with some of my basic concerns. I don’t know if you saw this early post I did:


    I find the whole process of writing about “nothing” and “doing nothing” fascinating, and I try to collect quotes, “sweet nothings” (tho I could do a much better job). The latest is this one, from the Sound of Music: “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could: somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”


  12. Zhiv — thank you! I did see your post earlier, but I’ll have to check it out again, in light of my recent reading. Writing about nothing sounds like a wonderful pursuit 🙂


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