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Gene Lyons: What the internet’s doing to our … oh, look at this!

Author

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

Among other eccentricities, I do not possess a smartphone and have never wanted one. It’s bad enough that I spend my working hours flitting around the internet like an over-caffeinated sparrow without carrying Google in my pocket. If I need to check the weather in Galway, Ireland, or Andrew Benintendi’s 2017 batting average, it can wait until I get back to my desk. I’ve even been known to turn off my antiquated, steam-powered flip phone to escape its clamor.

The other day I noticed three teenaged girls walking together down the sidewalk, all separately absorbed in their little glowing screens. If one had plunged into an open manhole, would her friends have noticed? You see kids everywhere these days, slumped in public places madly typing with their thumbs.

Texting strikes me as maybe the least convenient means of communication since smoke signals. Never mind that my hands are too big for thumb-typing. People often fail to detect irony in newspaper columns, and only rarely in emails. Misunderstood texts must cause dozens of homicides.

Plus, the police can subpoena them.

Mainly, though, I need to avoid the internet for a substantial amount of time each day to avoid what some people call “information sickness” — a pathological state induced by spending too much time online.

This has nothing to do with being a technophobe. To me, the most consequential invention of the 21st century is the digital TV recorder, which allows one to watch movies and sports commercial-free. Particularly during the election season, the thing is a godsend.

Seriously, though, the internet has been a great boon to people in my line of work. For a bookish fellow who feels claustrophobic in libraries, it’s been liberating. The other day a Facebook friend posted an Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr about the perils of working online.

“The web has been a godsend to me as a writer,” he explained. “Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after.”

But particularly for those of us with what the late John Leonard called “800-word minds,” i.e. columnists who value pithiness above all else, the internet can also be a trap.

“Over the past few years,” Carr frets, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.

“My concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.”

Mine too. Partly, I know, it’s age. It’s not because of the internet that I forgot the word for a small, shelled animal I needed for the punchline of a joke. My beagles sometimes chased them. But if I couldn’t summon the word “armadillo,” I did remember exactly where to find my copy of “Arkansas Mammals.” Problem solved.

Online, however, concentration comes hard. “Ding!” There’s an email. “Bloop!” Somebody wants to argue on Facebook. A Washington Post article links to something in The Atlantic. Then onward to Mother Jones, the Irish Times, whatever. By the time I make it back to the original piece, I’ve forgotten what it’s about and need to start over. Or not.

Carr thinks it’s a significant historical development akin to the printing press. I’m not so sure, because it’s still reading and writing. I’ve definitely noticed glib self-assurance creeping into political journalism written by youngsters with little understanding of historical context.

Another old-timer’s complaint.

Besides, there’s an easy fix. Shut the fool thing off at 4 p.m. Take the dogs for a walk along the river. Re-enter the physical world. We regularly encounter deer, beavers, groundhogs, ducks, pelicans, herons, hawks, even the occasional bald eagle. Any day now, Canada geese will come honking downriver in giant V-shaped flocks.

Our afternoon walk is often when my wife fills me in on the joys and sorrows of friends and family, gleaned from interactions with her loyal army of girlfriends.

Back home, there’s even time for reading actual books.

The internet’s just a tool; it doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner.

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