A 2019 worldwide study finds that the average respondent spends 6 hours and 42 minutes online per day; Canadians in 2021 clocked an average of 4.4 hours per day, up from 3.9 hours the previous year. (Salim, 2019. Somos, 2022). These facts might lead us at AU to ponder how many hours we’ve personally wiled away surfing aimlessly when we could have been, you know, applying ourselves. We do have to crack our own whip as distance students. Daydreaming has taken a different form in our digital realm too, due to the tendency to visit entertaining sites when our productive minds need a break. Maybe we ought to ask ourselves what accomplishments our future self would wish to look back on. That is, assuming our future selves aren’t so fundamentally different than our present selves that we look back and see nothing but an unrecognizable identity blob. That so was not the real me, we might say, but we can only know ourselves by pausing to reflect away from distractions like the internet.
While self-assessment is subjective and we’re all special, very special and lovable, in our own charming ways, it turns out that some of us are statistically weird where the internet is concerned. And not in an off-putting or horrifying way. Not because of our Netflix and chill viewing choices, but because, for instance, we regularly spend less than an hour on the internet each day. While surfing the web was once a cool thing to do, in my town akin to visiting the town dump for treasures like a latter-day Napoleon Dynamite, it now appears that being immersed in it, like an abandoned surfboard slowly becoming waterlogged and encrusted with barnacles until it sinks, has become the norm. Personally, it was ten years ago that I re-enlisted my cable provider and had them run a snail cable (!) to my house after many years with not even peasant vision air channels (those are now digitalized and obsolete, with or without the That 70s Show bunny ears antennae). From 2013 on I slowly but inexorably swam away from evenings on the ‘net after work the better to induce a sense of calm after my day. Maybe I’m doubly weird or maybe its the blue screen, but if I’m online I don’t feel as relaxed as if I’m writing or reading or watching the ol’ boob tube. But enough about me, sheesh!
Back to the Past, Our Future To Come?
A mincing waltz through history shows how technology has simultaneously saved and filled time. Those of us who are of an age to recall the days of yore when smartphones were rare and the internet involved howls and hisses from a modem might remember the rush to answer a landline telephone’s plaintive ringing. Its resonant twang would emanate throughout a house, adding to the dinner hour cacophony that included the long-ubiquitous microwave beep and even the antiquated but delightful ping sound of a toaster oven announcing its prize. As a kid in the 80s, my family one day even became the proud owners of a TV remote control. All these gadgets, and the cartoon show Inspector Gadget, seemed to combine providence, prudence, and quackery—depending on if they were abused. Now, as we know, the norm is to always be a fingertip away from one’s pocket device. Whether stuffed into one’s jeans, down one’s bra, or precariously peering out of a back pocket like a squared off pet ferret, the smart phone combines technological and culinary needs like an Eye of Osiris providing answers and sustenance both physiological and mental. And hey, there’s nothing like asking Grandpa Google a timely question when facts are required.
Happily, the online sphere allows us to study from the comfort of home. AU, by nature, is a digital experience such that we can consider our metaphorical campus culture as one whose online presence is almost exclusively for the good our minds. Plus, there’s the excellent traditional library that will still mail you books anywhere you reside (along with digital versions of many offerings). Yet even though we study online and write essays based on notes cut and pasted (or otherwise culled) from digital sources, a crucial source of intellectual leaps and bounds might remain untapped: those epiphanies when, as typewriter users used to say, one is away from the machine. Unplugging can open new doors for the mansion of our noble minds.
A brief foray into the outdoors, whether it’s to walk the dog or to grab some snail mail, gives the brain a pause in the way a switching of web browsers surely does not. It’s worth taking some physical breaks from studying, or that’s my experience, and it’s worth not just getting exercise (a dubious term on its own, redolent of forced marches that Calvin and Hobbes immortalized in the newspaper comic strip) but allowing the brain to stretch and unwind. The Beatles once sang “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go”. This statement says much about the value of stepping away from the laptop and even leaving the smartphone at home—it’ll be there when we come back. I’m no virtuous learner by any means; though an AU Master’s Degree alumni, the struggle was real and, at times, as much a mental challenge as any real world social situation. Not because the tutors weren’t helpful but simply because, waking up on a cold morning, my mind would desperately try to convince me that something, anything, needed doing more than my coursework. When academia is combined on one or more devices with countless more pleasurable distractions, it’s a wonder any of us get things done at all.
Perhaps a bit more historical awareness is on order: even if, due to your age, you don’t recall the hours of television that probably filled much of what is now known as online time. We can all feel and see how conversations on the screen with friends and family are of a different quality than merely meandering from one video to the next. So, what I found useful, and I hope you do too, is to keep a notebook in your pocket and at your desk with which to fill edifying ideas for research when your mind simply wants to dipsy-doodle through the tulips of clickbait.
Simply by writing something down physically it seems to become more real and latch itself into your consciousness, the better to twig your curiosity. Finally, knowing that, until recent history, the average person found other things to do with multiple hours in the day can stem as a reminder that you can pick your time-killing poison. What’s common nowadays, the eternal sunshine of the social media mind, will not be hegemonic forever. So why not use our academic gifts, augmented by our studies, to imagine what we might do in the future with those precious hours in our day that are currently used online doing things other than reading, writing, and generally being proverbial pencil-pushers. I’d humbly suggest you sharpen up a real world pencil and write a list of ideas you’d like to research when you’re on the internet next. Being away from the ‘net while studying, even briefly, can’t hurt so if you’ve read this far why not give it a try? After all, the article is over!