Months before Kenneth Goldsmith began to teach his college class, “Wasting Time on the Internet,” he already had his first lesson: The internet needs constant feeding, and a college course on fooling around online is exactly the kind of content it wanted.
The Penn course went viral in late 2014, after he gave interviews to a couple of reporters (specifically, to me and to a reporter at Vice) about the class. A college course where students could get credit for “wasting time” online? The internet bought into it, with a mix of outrage and envy.
By the time Goldsmith’s class actually started meeting in January 2015, he had a waiting list of more than 100 students, for a class with just 15 available spots.
Of course, Goldsmith wasn’t a newbie to getting the internet’s attention: A year before announcing “Wasting Time on the Internet,” he crowdsourced an art project that aimed to print out the entire internet.
Goldsmith said he initially hoped the experience of being forced to “waste time” online for a semester’s worth of classes would allow his students to write something interesting in the end. What happened next was initially a self-described “disaster,” albeit one that led to a book on the subject, which cames out Tuesday.
The class was saved, Goldsmith writes, when the students stopped wasting time on the internet as they normally would, by themselves, and started finding ways to do it together, as a group. The book even includes a class-generated listicle of 101 ways to “waste time” online.
“People say that technology creates distance between people,” Goldsmith wrote of the class. “But we found it to be just to opposite: Our physical and emotive experiences were intensified through our devices.”
While the book covers what happened in the seminar, it is about more than that. Overall, it’s an attempt to imbue a pastime that we tend to dismiss and revile with some consideration and meaning.
Below is an edited, condensed Q & A with Goldsmith, conducted by phone in early August.
Q: The phrase “wasting time on the internet” triggers an immediate, negative meaning. What are your thoughts on why it is that we all seem to think we know what it means to do this? What did “wasting time” online mean to you?
A: I feel like the discourse around time spent on the internet is puritanical. It’s moral, overtly so. It’s one-dimensional. It tries to try to put a very simple line — a pejorative line — on something that is actually a nuanced, complex and an often contradictory experience.
In the book, I wanted to explore the nature of that contradiction, the nature of fracture, the nature of division, read through theories of distraction. To say, I’m not sure we’re thinking about this exactly right.
Q; The moral judgment is applied to the whole person, too, so it speaks to someone’s moral character that they waste a lot of time on the internet …
A: The problem with that is that then we’re all condemned. The fact is, we’re all wasting time online. So why are we condemning ourselves, condemning everyone, for it? It’s not going away anytime soon. We’re not disconnecting. So we need to learn to think about this in another way.
In the end of the book, I talk about how people say that the internet is making us less social. But then, I wonder how the families of black people who are shot by the police feel about this notion that we’re just wasting time on our cellphones.
These devices are for both. People point to their cellphones and say “these are tools of social justice.” And that’s true. They are also devices on which we play games.
Q: A lot of the things that have been written about Pokemon Go this summer get at a more trivial version of that discussion about the value of the mobile internet. There seems to be a passionate disagreement between two opposing camps. One sees the game as “pointless” and the other sees value.
A: It’s both. That’s what we need to be saying. It’s really complicated.
Pokemon Go is pure surrealism. It’s something out of a Magritte painting. It’s like an apple on somebody’s head. So we can begin to then read Pokemon Go through theories of modernism, through the subconscious, through the drifting, through the absurd, and also presence and absence at the same time.
I think reading Pokemon Go through the flâneur is a good way to try and understand. The flâneur is totally engaged and also totally disengaged at the same time. It’s intense engagement, and intense detachment, through the urban landscape.
I’m really interested in Pokemon Go. Those videos of crowds rushing through Central Park, stampedes! It was marvelous! They’re really chasing dreams. This is waking dreamspace.
Q: In the book, you describe an exercise where an entire group watches one person waste time on the internet, projected on a giant screen. The groups seem to know immediately when someone was “faking it” or not. They hated watching someone pretend to waste time on the internet, but were entranced when someone did it for real. How can we make that distinction?
A: First of all, those sessions were just really weird.
We all waste time on the internet alone, or in the library, or at Starbucks. But when you start to do it with a group, you find that these devices amplify emotion, and affect. The viralty of emotions kind of rippled through the room. You had a group of people in a trance, just watching someone waste time on the internet. It’s such a strange situation.
The notion that these devices separate us is a really common idea. Sometimes, it’s true. But often, it’s really not.
Q: It seems like we developed a way understanding for this while we weren’t even looking, in the same way that we know when someone has an authentic conversation with you, or they’re just faking with small talk.
A: In these sessions, you could even understand what was going on when someone was scrolling through Facebook, and the cursor would slow down. Suddenly, you’re seeing the connection between the cursor and the mind of the person controlling it. It’s such an insight into someone’s mind, their psychology.
Q: Which brings up the fact that Facebook has also caught onto this. And knows too when we scroll back up to look at something, and when we ignore it …
A: I think there’s a real distinction there, though. That’s metrics, and it’s advertising, and its automated. Insert the human, and a bouquet of thought becomes so much more fragrant than the dryness of the algorithm.
That’s why Pokemon Go is so marvelous, it puts the body back into the landscape. I’m interested in the body, and the human being inserted into the experience, as opposed to the algorithm.
Q: Has the fact that we don’t culturally value this idea of wasting time on the internet helped to cede some of that territory to Facebook, or Twitter, who do get enormous value in a different way from us wasting time on the internet there?
A: You know, I’m just stunned at how well we use technology and how poorly we theorize it. We’re really good at it, and it’s marvelous. But we don’t think about it. My students, my god, they’re so good at using technology. But they don’t think about it.
I have far left friends who complain about corporate culture, and they do it on Facebook. They’re not seeing it! They’re not seeing that the platform is owned by something else.
I think we want to make technology transparent, so we can use it and not think about it. The problem is, its highly intertwined with technological corporate advertising money that problemetize that transparency. When it suddenly becomes visible, you go, “ugh, how did I not see it?”
But at this point, you can’t walk away. You have to be really privileged to walk away from digital culture. Social contacts, jobs, everything comes through that. It’s just really important to be aware of it.
But use it. it’s marvelous, and it’s evil, it’s Promethean, it’s both.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Abby Ohlheiser