A common sight in our age of electronics is that of people walking with head down, intent on their smart-phone screen. Texting or reading, these people are absorbed. They are captivated by the delight of communicating silently around the world or across the street with some special friend. To observers they seem to be obsessed by the remote rather than engaged by the present. It may even seem they are wasting time on the Internet.
There are many activities carried out by staring at a screen that might earn the title of “Wasting Time on the Internet.” But did you know you could contribute to an Ivy League Degree by taking a class on Wasting Time on the Internet? The class is offered at U Penn and has created quite a stir. As every tuition-paying parent could attest!
How does it work, this class on wasting time on the Internet? Students are expected to come to class each Wednesday to spend 3 hours purposely wasting time on the Internet. Aimlessly clicking. Reading blogs, articles, texts of SMS, Tweets, email, even search query results. Enforced for three hours. The actual course description from U Penn’s website gives the class at least some substance:
We spend our lives in front of screens, mostly wasting time: checking social media, watching cat videos, chatting, and shopping. What if these activities — clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing — were used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature?
Could we reconstruct our autobiography using only Facebook? Could we write a great novella by plundering our Twitter feed? Could we reframe the internet as the greatest poem ever written? Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature.
Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs.
Lindsay Kolowich, of Hubspot’s Inbound Marketing blog, interviewed Professor Kenneth Goldsmith to find out, “How did Goldsmith come up with this idea?” His explanation to Lindsay as to why he designed such a class sheds dim light on the matter.
“It came about with my frustration after having read article after article about how the internet is making us dumber,” he told me. “I don’t think that’s true. We’re reading and writing more than we ever have; we’re sharing ideas and learning in ways that cannot be measured. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value these types of reading, writing, sharing, and learning. We will not learn in the old ways; our learning will be different.”
We can mirror that statement with a further look at the class description which says, “To bolster our practice, we’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting through critical texts… Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.
So, strictly speaking, the class is not about wasting time on the Internet, but about learning what wasting time itself means. And being able to communicate that. The argument would be that if one can produce a profitable piece of writing – prose or poetry – from the exercise of “aimless drifting” on the Internet, the time is not wasted.
In favor of the class is the concept that Goldsmith’s students will be required to “reframe their daily online experiences from aimless and unengaged to creative and connected.” Goldsmith further says,
I would like them to think that every time they sit down in front of the computer, they have the potential to turn the internet into great literature. The whole web is cut-and-pasteable and if we begin constructing our poems from what appears before us on our screens, we’ll never have writers’ block. It’s a very rich landscape.”
If, however, the student cannot produce something meaningful from their experience of wasting time on the Internet, then while they would be in a position to have failed the class, they would have succeeded in learning something vital about themselves: they cannot absorb, analyze and create from aimless drifting or wasting time on the Internet. And that has some redeeming value in a society always trying to redefine basic realities.