Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Burnout Revisited

The lead essay in the second round of David Brooks' Sidney Awards is this piece by Andrew Sulllivan called I Used to Be A Human Being.  Sullivan is a former blogger extraordinaire who ultimately did serious damage to his health as a result of being an addict of always online.  Then he went through a process of self-reclamation which seemed to work, only to find that he was eventually succumbing to his old ways.  If you haven't read Sullivan's piece yet, I encourage you to do so.  It is revealing and may shed some light on our own online behaviors.  Not coincidentally, I too did such a reflection recently in my piece Putting My Brain In Mothballs.  So I may have been primed for Sullivan's piece, but I originally thought it was just going to be recycled Sherry Turkle, and I didn't want that.  (She gets ample mention in Sullivan's essay.)  I put off reading Sullivan's piece for that reason.  I was pleasantly surprised by it, for its personal perspective into the issue and also for the necessity that he argues for about having an extreme cure.  This is addiction we're talking about.  It is not merely a minor bad habit to overcome. A drastic problem requires a drastic solution.

Somewhere in the middle of reading Sullivan's piece, a memory was triggered that I wrote something on this subject a long time ago, March 2006.  That post, in turn, was triggered by something of a big event in the edu-blog universe.  Stephen Downes, who publishes the newsletter OLDaily, had announced that he was stepping away from the work for an indefinite period.  This occasioned many of the people doing edu-blogging to reflect about their own circumstance.  D'Arcy Norman was one of those folks and he picked up on my post in his own reflection.  (I changed the host of my blog since writing that post.  My post can now be found here.)  The comment thread on D'Arcy's site is interesting, both in describing why the online communication is so compelling and in the pitfalls of getting too immersed in it.

The thing is, that was more than 10 years ago, which seems like eons in Internet time.  At the time of writing that post I wouldn't get onto Facebook for another 2 and a half years.  I didn't get my first smartphone till the following fall.  And this was well before the burst of the housing market bubble, so from a macroeconomic perspective things were reasonably optimistic.  The burnout I was feeling when I wrote the post was really much more of the old fashioned kind - getting beat up from the job. Indeed, I changed jobs latter that year, moving from the campus IT organization to the College of Business.  Nevertheless, that the technology had a narcotic effect was clearly evident then.  There should be no mistake about that.

Since then, to steal a metaphor from when I was a teenager, we've moved onto harder drugs.  The lags between producing online content and getting feedback on it have come down dramatically.  The "like" button creates an anticipation that feedback will be coming.  And further, while I was pretty adamant about producing long and ponderous blog posts, and still cling to that conviction, I now generate a lot more short-length content.  Many people do.  On the one hand, the short posts seems to please some of my friends, who clearly find that content more accessible.  On the other hand, it feeds the beast.  Shorter-length content can be generated at greater frequency.  I should add here that with much of my day not scheduled, in contrast to how things were when I was working full time, I've got that much more time to be online and noodle around.  That discretionary time is both a blessing and a curse.

While most of what Sullivan writes I found myself agreeing with, on one or two things his experience differed from mine.  One of these is about reading books.  I too struggled right after the semester ended to read the novel I had planned to immerse myself in as escapist fiction.  I soon wanted to click away to check email and Facebook.  So that much is the same.  But I found that if you keep trying it for a few days then its easier to get into the story and the attention span for reading the fiction improves.  I won't say that I reached the point where I was as absorbed as I used to be as a teen reading fiction.  But I was improving in my concentration.  So I'm not sure that reading should be ruled out in favor of meditation.  In my view, the big thing is to have some ongoing regime where the stimulus is from one source only and that is not interrupted by electronic communications with friends or colleagues.  I'm guessing that the brain will heal itself in that circumstance, though it might take quite a while.  No doubt, there is also great temptation to end the regime prematurely and return to previous behaviors.

The other thing, and Sullivan does mention the election, is that it is such a big deal this time, partly because so many people are bent out of shape about it (and I am one of them).  The regime of leaving the computer screen for an extended period of time to be offline and therefore disconnected, while perhaps quite appropriate for restoring one's mental health, seems at odds with doing something (what, I'm not sure) either to resist the Trump regime or to make the world a better place in spite of it.  Further, venting is usually a healthy early expression that leads to subsequent action.  That many people are venting now is entirely understandable.   But it makes being online compelling in a macabre kind of way, seeing all these people express their intense irritation. 

So I think you can have one or the other, but not both.  And until you decide which one it will be, you're apt to bounce between the two.  That's the way it has been for me since the fall semester concluded.

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