Lost in Space

by Kieran Healy on February 20, 2006

Scott McLemee: “The effect of constant web access is a kind of mental entropy.” Similarly, a recent comment by “Dave Pell”:http://davenetics.com/2006/01/referrers/:

I can’t read books. I can’t even focus on a magazine article without stopping every few paragraphs to email my team at Rollyo about tweaks we should be making to our new Firefox tool (or whatever happens to be to project of the moment). I can’t listen to other people for more than a few seconds. Eye contact is unthinkable (too much else to see). … Did the internet make me like this? Did the always connected, always emailing, always browsing, always IMing and always going all-in while playing online Texas Holdem gradually destroy my ability to focus and think clearly? Or was I just a guy with a short attention span who was therefore drawn to the internet?



Mary 02.20.06 at 10:00 am

I definitely seem to have lost a lot of my focus over the past few years, but I don’t think that it’s because the Net has permanently damaged it. If I absolutely have a deadline, things get done. If I lose Net access, things get done.

Right now I work at home but am constantly tempted to surf. My current solution is to yank my Net connection during working hours, using my Blackberry to get client mail. I reconnect only if I have to download or upload files, then yank the connection again.


John Holbo 02.20.06 at 10:13 am

I’ve had to make rules. No surfing for x hours. The crunch comes when it’s grading time, and you could mark a paper … or read another blog post. A lot of blog reading and writing gets done that way. I was marking drafts today, so I ended up composing three posts.


Ginger Yellow 02.20.06 at 10:23 am

I have the opposite of this condition (also confessed to by Amanda at Pandagon, I believe) and I’m definitely a net/blog addict. My reading habits have always been dictated by a sort of hyperlinking process – a footnote or a reference in one book would send me off to read two more books, which would in turn send me off to read another four. I’ve always got a backlog of books to read, despite devoting several hours a day to the habit. That’s on top of being a voracious newspaper and magazine reader. The internet just exacerbates this (quite pleasant) problem – for instance a blogger will review a book, and in a couple of clicks I can see hundreds of other reviews and order it if it sounds good. Alternatively a discussion will inspire to read a book on the topic I’ve been meaning to for a while.


trey 02.20.06 at 10:31 am

This is totally crippling and I’m trying to find a way to combat it. Simply disconnecting the net doesn’t usually work — I just reconnect it. It’s a question of reinstating willpower. The ridiculous part? I don’t even enjoy the surfing most of the time. Comments on blogs can get my blood boiling fast.


J Thomas 02.20.06 at 11:19 am

Trey, one possibility is to give somebody else an administrative password-protected account, and let them give you net access for only so many hours a day. You have to depend on someone else, though.

One approach that worked for me back in the days when my computer didn’t go great multitasking, was to have a background routine that checked the clock once a second. At ten minutes to the hour it would display a message “Time for an exercise break!” and do so much wheelspinning that nothing else worked for ten minutes. So I’d stop programming and get in my exercise break.

But when I started using an OS that let me kill processes, I could just bypass it.


Grand Moff Texan 02.20.06 at 11:31 am

I can’t even focus on a magazine article without stopping every few paragraphs to email my team at Rollyo about tweaks we should be making to our new Firefox tool

Then put down your magazine and get back to work, ’cause Firefox sucks, you tool.


Todd 02.20.06 at 11:39 am

Then put down your magazine and get back to work, ‘cause Firefox sucks, you tool.

Wow. You just managed to trump every Jonah Goldberg quote ever reprinted by a CT poster for “most patently ridiculous statement ever to appear in this webspace.” Bravo.


jet 02.20.06 at 12:15 pm

Firefox sucks? What? I’ll tell you what sucks, man, Texas sucks and you know what else, Oh, look I’ve got mail…..


etat 02.20.06 at 12:27 pm

Except that Firefox really does suck. It’s the biggest resource hog on my machine, thanks to various extensions, and it’s slow to load as well.

Aside from that, I can say that the internet is no different from any other time-wasting activity. Having been a timewaster since before the internet was invented, I can recall the office hours whiled away doing extraordinarily trivial tasks because there was no point getting started on something substantial. Sorting paperclips, anyone? So there’s a case to be made for surfing as a more productive form of timewasting.


Bill McNeill 02.20.06 at 1:04 pm

I distinctly remember finding ways to procrastinate even before I owned a computer.


hugechavz 02.20.06 at 2:40 pm

I have a two-part solution:

1) The adblock extension for Firefox (cough), which lets you block specific sites a la porn filters (so I hear) in addition to ads and stuff.

2) Every time you go to a forbidden site, you have to get up and do 10 pushups or 10 situps. It looks rediculous enough that you’ll soon just open windows and stop yourself at typing; at the end of the day, you’ll likely not even open the windows. And everyone could use a little exercise.

Of course, it’s a very simple maneuver to disable adblock. It may be even better to change the HOSTS file (redirecting problem sites to


John Emerson 02.20.06 at 6:10 pm

Not really a joking matter. I use the same workstation to do my surfing and to do my productive writing. Disconnecting the internet might help, but I use the internet a lot in my productive writing too. I’ve tried various gimmick solutions and none of them work.

Spending part of may day at a place without internet access is the only solution I think might work.


nick s 02.21.06 at 8:18 am


Dwayne Monroe 02.21.06 at 10:21 am

One of the things I find amusingly ironic about this is how closely it mirrors concerns raised in past years about ‘excessive’ televsion viewing (shortened attention span, lack of “discipline” and so on).

For a moment, the Net seemed like a gift from Apollo because we were obviously doing more reading and, it was hoped, learning (perhaps even at an accelerated pace).

Now we come full circle: universal access to information (some regrettable, much very good) is seen as a personal problem that needs solving.


Barbara W. Klaser 02.21.06 at 4:55 pm

I find it more difficult to sit still and read a book these days. I have to keep my writing computer disconnected and actually shut this (online) one down to get any real writing done.


e-tat 02.21.06 at 4:56 pm

Well that was a waste of time!

How about this for anyone who hasn’t the will to step away from the screen:

Lockout: The Self-imposed, Computer-aided Work Enforcer. Are you a slacker? So am I. Do you procrastinate all day? Do you browse the Web, read the news, and write email all day in stead of working? So do I. Does it make you feel miserable and apathetic? Do you tell yourself to stop browsing the fucking Web and get some bloody work done? Do you have absolutely no discipline? I know your pain. But recent technological advancements have made it possible… There is a cure for your disease!
Years of slacking at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology have resulted in a brilliant 572-line Perl script (which includes 310 empty lines and comment lines for free!) that makes it all possible!


Grand Moff Texan 02.22.06 at 11:22 am

I apologize. That should have read “Firefox for Mac sucks, you tool.”

Thank you.

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