Monday, July 23, 2012

Writing, The Stupid Internet, and You

In some German TV interview, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author David Foster Wallace is asked about his relationship with television. He says he doesn’t have a set, and then quickly broadens his answer by saying that this is not some smug declaration, but the equivalent of an alcoholic saying that they don’t keep hooch in the house. I watched this hour-long interview in instalments on YouTube when I probably should have been doing something else.

I own two computers, one with the internet and one without. I write on the former and mouth-breath on the latter.

Today on that latter computer, I downloaded two eagerly anticipated episodes of American Pickers (one of which is titled “The Return of Hobo Jack.” I seriously can’t wait.), read a fake and hilarious letter Werner Herzog wrote to his cleaning lady, watched a clip of Werner Herzog being shot during a BBC interview, then a clip of Werner Herzog explaining that he only just realized that his friend of 30 years, Pink Flamingos director John Waters (whose name Herzog can’t remember initially), was gay, then went to IMDB to see what movies Herzog has coming up, after which I made snide comments on my friends’ Facebook status updates, read articles about things and listened to bands they recommended, the lot of which I can’t, four hours later, remember anything about. This while checking my email a fucking bazillion times. The whole time my writing computer was open to a project on the desk to the left of me—did I mention that I have a work desk and an internet desk?—and I would reach over and wiggle the mouse every time the machine threatened to go to sleep. I was going to get back to work in just a sec.

My idea to get the worst computer I could find, one which would tolerate the presence of nothing more than a Word program, never mind the internet, came from Oprah’s new Gail at the time, Jonathan Franzen. I can only assume that he manages the tomes he does because he has no internet access. Franzen made no mention of being in a house where there was no internet, or not having other gadgets capable of roving and roaming the kitten-riddled ether.

Of course I read this Franzen interview on the internet.

In the past I’ve been able to manage some scintilla of creativity while having a TV on in the background. The trick was not to watch. Knowing that it was there and on was somehow mollifying, and all I had to do was turn my head if I heard something interesting happen. The bitch of the internet is that my participation is required. It can’t be ignored because to have it on means that you are, to an extent, at its helm.

 Internets have helms, right?

Wallace’s problem with the TV was surfing, compelled by this worry that there was something better that he didn’t know about on some other channel. This must have been in the days before digital channel guides. I don’t much bother with TV anymore because, viewing the channel guide, it’s robustly obvious that there’s nothing better anywhere. It’s all garbage, or it’s about people living in garbage, or rooting through other people’s garbage finding garbage that’s worth something. The internet, however, is some bullshit Borgesian Babel, where every one item you view or read comes with oodles of suggestions for celebrity nudity or fat kids wiping out on their bike or revelations about what Facebook does with your birthday and religious views that you might find interesting. There is no end to relevance in whatever the internet is.

Getting an internet-less computer didn’t, I admit, do much to dash that Rear Window-esque urge to peep through the connected machine still in the room. I still have hooch in the house; I’ve just hidden it from myself in some inconvenient place. Writing this now, I’ve got the wigglies, wondering what’s on the other machine that I might be missing. For all I know, “The Return of Hobo Jack” is done downloading. Werner Herzog might be getting shot somewhere else as we speak. Stephen Harper might have accidentally used the term “in a coon’s age” at the opening of a new Tim Horton’s where a used bookstore used to be. And I want to be the first one to post a link to these things, so other people can drop whatever important thing it is there doing and have a look.

I’ll be honest with you: the only reason I got up from one chair and sat down in the other to prattle about this now—yes, I have a separate chair for each desk—is that, while surfing, I was given an option to see a picture of Whitney Houston’s dead body. The prospect of seeing some probably blurry, cell phone shot of that misery broke whatever spell. I’ll give the internet this: every once and a while its cumulative repugnance drives me back to productivity in a way that nothing else has ever managed.

The fact that you, whoever you are, are reading this on the internet while you should probably be doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing, is not lost on me. I’d tell you to get back to work, but I know that wouldn’t do much good. Google “Whitney Houston’s Dead Body” and decide for yourself how much more aimless clicking you feel up for.

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