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Managing My Digital Life (Or: How I Learned To Love The Internet Without Surrendering To It)

I've spent the last few months trying to figure out how to live a thoughtful, contemplative life in a digital age. There's been a lot of talk lately about Nicholas Carr's book, "The Shallows," and about how The Google Life is one of endless multitasking and short-circuited thoughts that, not so slowly, is robbing us of the ability to think or read deeply, or at length.

For awhile, I tried a little bit of cold turkey -- deactivating my Facebook and Twitter accounts -- and pondered the idea of giving up the digital life entirely. I discarded that idea ultimately: Giving up the Internet is, frankly, impractical. Twitter, it turns out, is a useful networking tool. And Facebook, well ... Facebook connects me with my friends, old and new. I would miss them.

Plus: I like blogging.

Instead, I've had to set limits for myself. The problem for me isn't so much the Internet -- there's tons to love about the Internet -- but my own capacity for endless, shallow farting around. So:

* I'VE LIMITED MYSELF TO 100 FEEDS TO FOLLOW ON TWITTER. AND I KEEP IT ENTIRELY TO THE BROWSER. Once I reactivated my account, I remembered why I'd abandoned Twitter in the first place -- too many feeds, updated too frequently. I'd previously used the Twitterrific desktop client, and Twitter updates would thus push themselves into my consciousness constantly whenever I was using the computer. Now Twitter is waiting there for me when I choose to go get it. And there's not as much for me to get: I'm at 100 feeds I'm following now -- when I add one, I drop one. It's that simple.

* I'VE DEEPLY LIMITED MY RSS FEEDS: I'm down to Philly's newspapers, a couple of local blogs and one major liberal blog, one major conservative blog and one major libertarian blog. I also subscribe to Memeorandum, which allows me to track the flow of blogospheric conversation without having a million blogs pushing their updates into Google Reader. Yes, there are good bloggers whose work I still want to follow -- but I can either drop in on them from time-to-time or I can catch their highlights from their Twitter feed. It's less oppressive than having 1,000 unread posts in my reader.

* I'VE CHANGED HOW I USE INSTAPAPER: If you haven't used Instapaper, you should, because it offers one potential solution to Carr's vexations, letting you save long-form written pieces for later reading -- when you're in less of a scanning RSS mode and readier for meatier reading. But it comes, for many people, with a new problem: The piling up of unread articles in the Instapaper queue. My solution? I won't let myself have more than five items in the queue at any one time. (Six, in a pinch.) If a story lingers for a couple of days, I recognize that I'm probably not going to get to it -- and delete it. Generally speaking, though, my approach here is the same as Twitter: If one new story comes on, another must go off. Preferably, I've read it first. But not always.

What's more, I read Instapaper articles only on my iPhone. The temptations to multitasking are simply too great on my computer. I can engage the text a little better if it's the only thing in front of me -- and iPhone is good at keeping just one thing in front of you. If Instapaper had highlighting and note-taking options available -- like the Kindle and Nook for iPhone do -- I'd be completely set.

The next couple of things I'm less good at, but trying to incorporate into my life:

* NO NET AT DINNERTIME: My wife and I realized that popping on a movie at dinnertime was having the effect of distracting our toddler son from actually eating -- with consequences for the entire family at bedtime. So, no more videos at mealtime. There's a temptation to futz on my iPhone at the point, but I'm trying to turn it off completely and enjoy the company of actual humans over food. A little music in the background is OK.

* THE COMPUTER COMES OFF COMPLETELY AT 9 PM. This one I'm worst at. But the nights I turn it off and retire to bed with a good novel are the nights I sleep best and wake up most refreshed.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it offers virtually limitless access to information, video and dialogue. But my time is limited, as is my attention. So I'm setting limits on my engagement with the Internet, so that I can live a life that is enhanced by what the web has to offer -- not dominated by it.


James said…
Dinnertime is even rougher with teenagers - I've instituted a "no electronics at the table" rule or else there would be no talking at all.

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