I'm an info-dazzled surf-addicted Internet scatterbrain

I'm Googling in public! This has gone too far!

By Cary Tennis

Published October 30, 2006 11:23AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I hit puberty the same time the Internet hit public consciousness. And as the Internet grew up, from CompuServe through Wikipedia, it mirrored my own intellectual and emotional development. But now, perched in my office chair as a 25-year-old citizen of the world, the Internet and I are no longer on the best of terms. I have become an information addict, and it's disturbing my quality of life.

Every day, at home and at work, I surf. I read the metro blogs, the news feeds, and a grip of lefty sites and culture listings. I'm on mailing lists for dozens of groups, I have accounts on MySpace and Friendster, Nerve and Salon. If something interests me I'll rush to Google to learn everything I can about it. The list goes on and on.

My job only feeds the addiction because it involves keeping my finger on the pulse of the city. The fact that there is never a lack of events and information here just makes things worse. My Palm Pilot is chock-full of events that I will never go to, but the invitations keep coming. And when I'm not on the Internet, I'm reading magazines and newspapers.

My plugged-in life has made me a superb multitasker, but even the best multitasker will lose a lot in the shuffle. My work is suffering, my social life is suffering, but most of all, my brain is suffering. I forget my wallet when I go out, because I'm too busy thinking about Iowa's Senate race. I think maybe I should learn meditation or go camping, but then I just spend hours online researching it instead of just doing it. So, while I'm loads of fun at cocktail parties with my never-ending font of partial knowledge, I miss the feeling of being an expert on a few things, and also a sense of mental quiet. How can I maintain my healthy curiosity without ending up like that stupid cat?


Dear Scatterbrain,

Sometimes we are a little in love with our problems. Although we agree that we should be rid of them, we are not entirely ready to let them go.

Say you have too many boyfriends because you are just so darned attractive. It can be a problem. It can interfere with math homework. And people will talk. They will say, Darn, she has too many boyfriends! But having too many boyfriends is not a problem the way having cancer is a problem. When you complain about it, people do not say, Well, if there is anything I can do, anything at all, seriously, you just call me. Seriously.

They say, Well, honey, you got yourself into this.

In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, incidentally, there is this part that goes, "Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character." It's just this little part, but people get hung up there, like climbers hanging from a ledge of unexpected difficulty. Dangling in the air: Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character. You get there and you find out you are not entirely ready. Somewhat ready. Not entirely. So you dangle, unable to continue your ascent; you weigh the options. You count your pleasures. You haggle.

We don't want to be old-fashioned about how many boyfriends a gal can have. She can eat all the mints in the mint bowl, too. But what if having too many boyfriends is a kind of greed -- a symptom of a hunger the satisfaction of which is, in its extremity, sort of undignified?

Having too many boyfriends is a problem that in itself you might not completely want to be rid of, though it creates difficulties in other areas and has roots in more profound personal struggles. Likewise, your information surfing may be a problem you might not entirely be ready to be rid of. Though it is causing you some trouble, it does have proven social value. It makes you feel good. It makes you the life of the party, and it defines you, placing you at the center of a certain generational or historical matrix. It's sort of who you are. And yet your discomfort with it hints at something else: It is a little out of control; it is meeting some needs other than just those for information -- perhaps the need to be distracted and continually amused, the need to avoid facing certain weighty and demanding questions, or meeting certain competing needs -- for meditation and solitude, say, or for sustained effort in personal relationships or creative projects.

Having said all that, which I admit is taking rather the long way around but that is my customary route (I like the walking as much as the getting there) I would suggest you pick something you have been wanting to do and putting off and make a list of the concrete steps you need to take. For instance, with meditation: What is required for you to meditate? Do you need a class? A guidebook? A space set aside in your home? A scheduled time? Start by making a list of all the things required. One by one, acquire the things needed. Check them off the list. Observe: This is how things are done.

Let me guess: One reason you may have done nothing about changing is that you think you have to change completely who you are -- that either you are the multitasking Internet Girl or you are some anonymous plodding fool. If so, allow me to remind you: It's not an either-or proposition. In the midst of multitasking, make your list. In your conversations with others, inquire as to meditation practices. Check things off your list as you can. This is the way progress is made.

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