The Dangers of Water Skiing, Or, What Social Media is Doing to Our Reading, Writing, Thinking

Years ago, a girlfriend, nearly breathless with zeal, sent me a copy of what she said was the “hottest new publication,” a magazine called “Fast Company.” One of the article titles on the cover was something like, “Power Lunch, Elevator Style.” I thanked my friend for thinking of me, but disliked and discarded the copy before  ever opening it.

The concept of “fast” – fast company, quick lunch, slick and obsequious elevator rides, speed reading – touched a nerve in me. Why? Because unless it has to do with saving someone’s life or making dinner in less than 20 minutes, I dislike “fast.”  Or at least I’m sharply suspicious of it.

waterskiing

This wariness, I think, was heightened because when I got that copy of “Fast Company,” I was living in Paris, a place where lunches (and their conversations) last at least a full hour, and where dinners (and their conversations) last sometimes three. Where no respectable anyone eats while riding from floor three to fourteen, and where, in a way I can hardly describe without growing drooly, the slow lane overtakes the fast one.

It’s where taxi drivers have chunky, worn volumes of Hugo, Proust and French Symbolist poetry on their dashboards. And they read them.  (Going from the airport to downtown? Be ready for The Conversation.)

I believe in slow.  I trust gradual. I’m wired for plumbing downward or probing upward, not for skimming horizontally.  When it comes to reading, writing, and the way I keep my company, I’m a scuba diver.

scuba

Years since Paris, since my days of vetoing “Fast,” since that time when I disciplined myself to check email only once a week, (Wednesday afternoons for two hours – I know, I can hardly believe it, either), and rarely texted except to keep track of my teenagers out in a big city, I never would have dreamed of doing much of what I do today: writing this public blog, having not only a private but a professional Facebook page, T-t-t-t-weeting. Somewhere along the way, I began mastering the lite-write.

This world, in case you hadn’t noticed, is all new. It’s one made by and for water skiers! It might even breed them. In any case, I’m convinced it’s breeding water skier brains.

(This is another tangent , but don’t you wonder if this hyper-connected world also breeds extroverts? If you do, and this concerns you, read Susan Cain’s Quiet.)

The vast waters of connectivity call out for us to grab a rope, slap on some skis, and knot a cable around our waists.  This boat’s taking off like a bullet, folks, and because it’s moving at Mach speed, it demands that you skim, scroll, and ski across a spray of surfacey sound bytes.  And they have to be no more than sound bytes, of course, because we’re passing them like billboards lining the Indy 500.

E-mail is too wordy, time consuming.  So we shave it down to a phrase or two on Facebook.

FB takes too long. So we distill it to Twitter’s 140 characters.

Yet with all the social platforms we’re managing, who has time for 140 anything?

So we Instagram. Because who needs words when a snap shot paints a thousand of them?

(Or so we think.)

Others are concerned as I am.  In his utterly fascinating, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that our brains are devolving to adapt to being dragged across the thin surface of visual image, bullet points, and maybe the occasionally well-wrought jingle.  Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not A Gadget, considers what this high pitch surface velocity does to our sense of self, our place in humanity. And here, Edan Lepucki shares the experience of disconnecting (for a spell) from social media altogether.

What can we conclude? What can I learn from the personal proof that my own brain is jumpier, more staccato, and that my spirit is more jittery, more pinball-ish since “connecting” in several directions? What’s happening if I haven’t sunk into a dense work of true literary value in months? That, over the same time, I haven’t been able to conjure a single line of poetry?

skiing water

For people who dive, water skiing can be frightening, alienating, not to mention exhausting. What if you’re the type that shrinks from gum-flapping velocity, hang-on-for-dear-life tautness, from hopping wakes at break neck speed, or zhwooping from point A to point Z?  What if you want to write a poem about – and not just whizz past – the blurred landscape?

What if you feel most alive hunkering over the majesty and potency of words, tonguing them during long stretches of stone-like silence? What if you aren’t interested only in linear efficiency (getting from point A to Z), but are more invested in making (and expanding and elaborating on) a point? What if you long to dive into the deep end and discover the magic of those compressed realms?

If we are, as some argue, evolving into beings that write and think in txt msg abbrvs, will we lose our ability to read and write and live in ever-descending spirals, probing and penetrating the Otherworld? Will we in turn lose dimensions of our humanness? If the brusque slash-and-pin-prick of an exclamation point – the punctuation mark du jour – overrules the curved concentration of a question mark, what are we heading for?

What, in your opinion, are our options, besides letting go of the social media rope altogether? But wait! What would happen if we did? Would we sink, helpless and limpid, into the water?  Into irrelevancy? Into oblivion?

scuba diving