The next time someone tells you you’re
wasting too much time on the Internet, tell them you’re contributing to the
greatest poem ever written. That’s how poet and University of Pennsylvania professor
Kenneth Goldsmith views the Internet — and now he’s teaching a course geared
towards exploring it: During the Spring 2015 semester, Goldsmith is offering a class titled “Wasting Time on the Internet” in the UPenn Department of
English. For reals. Best class ever? Perhaps.
“Live without dead time. — Situationist graffiti, Paris, May 1968. 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?”
The course will use only laptops and Wi-Fi as its materials and will require students to “stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, socialmedia, and listservs.” They’ll also take a look at “the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting” using critical texts. Affect theory, situationism, Betty Friedan, and John Cage are all on the reading list (which, presumably, will be accessed online only). The ultimate goal will be to take all that Internet-based time-wasting and assemble it together into the aforementioned “compelling and emotional works of literature.”
Why teach a class like this? Said Goldsmith to Motherboard, “I’m very tired of reading articles in the New York Times every week that make us feel bad about spending so much time on the Internet, about dividing our attention so many times.” (Like Horcruxes, perhaps?) He continued, “I think it’s complete bullshit that the Internet is making us dumber. I think the Internet is making us smarter. There’s this new morality built around guilt and shame in the digital age.” I’m not sure I buy completely into this viewpoint—the Internet does place a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but what we choose to do with it is a totally different story — but I do think he’s onto something about the “new morality built around guilt and shame in the digital age.” The U.S.’s Puritanical roots may not dictate that we never, ever celebrate on Saturday nights anymore, but they do still show through in other ways — like that sense of digital shame Goldsmith points out.
Goldsmith also remarked upon the way society values writing on the Internet — or rather, doesn’t — and what he hopes to accomplish by reframing how we think about it. “We’re writing an enormous amount, but somehow the culture keeps devaluing that,” he said to Motherboard. “I think, yes, this is real writing. If we can claim that writing as poetry, [then] that alienation and guilt can be expunged and the writing can be celebrated. We can look forward to wasting time on the Internet instead of deriding it.” This? Yes. So much this. The Internet has opened up a whole new medium for writing, full of exciting forms to explore. Have you read Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts From” (now a book!) and “Dirtbag”series? Because they’re magnificent, and they harness exactly what Goldsmith is talking about. Or consider Tumblrs like If Paintings Could Text — same deal, and something that wouldn't have been possible in the pre-digital era.
As is the case with many such things, the Internet is really just a tool; it’s what we do with it that matters.