Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reflections in the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

Digital Fatigue

At times it’s hard to believe there was life before the Internet. How in the world did people shop, communicate with, or date one another? Experts trumpet the Internet as the next plateau of evolution in human communication, akin to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press back somewhere around 1439. That’s super. And it may even be true. 

The development of the Internet goes hand-in-hand with the digitization of media: music, films, television, letters, books, newspapers—you name it. All of the primary channels for sharing information, how we tell stories and relate experiences with one another, have been digitized. I’m not so sure that is super. 

I have days upon days worth of digital music available on my computer’s hard drive, not to mention streaming music options, any time I want it. My Netflix movie queue often extends down and around the block, typically topping out at around 90 movies waiting to be viewed. I have thousands of digital photos of my kids. All in all, I have enough digital content on my computer to last me several months of doing nothing more than viewing or listening to it. Safe to say, I would not be at a loss for entertainment if stranded on a desert island for an extended period of time.

The problematic term here for me is content. And that’s often how we talk about all of this digital stuff—it’s content. It’s no longer a single great photo or a memorable book. It’s a collection of stuff contained somewhere that needs to be sorted through. These numerous options for experiencing art—songs, pictures, films, books—all start to blur together on the digital screen. They lose their individual value. 

I probably watch two to three movies a week. I can’t recall the plots of most of them. And it’s not because they’re awful movies. I haven’t even seen Avatar. I have such a quantity of art ready to view whenever I want that these films no longer stand out as individual works of art. Same with music. I loved Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” and downloaded the entire album it’s from. My most recent review of the number of plays it’s had in iTunes? Two. Because I have so many songs available to listen to, this gem gets lost in the digital pile.

I think part of the problem here is the easy availability of this content—sorry, this art. It’s too easy and too cheap to access it. The result? These artistic experiences lose their value—and I’m not even talking about monetary value, which is another issue with digital formats. I’m talking about artistic value, the ability of a work of art to move your emotions, to spark a fire inside you, or crack open your understanding of the universe. 

I think it’s similar to the concept of museum fatigue. Repeated exposures to works of art can’t help but lessen their impact over the course of a museum exhibit. When something becomes routine, it loses its uniqueness and ability to move us. 

Incidentally, it’s also the same dynamic that drug addicts experience. Repeatedly getting high builds up a tolerance in the addict’s body. The same amount of drug no longer provides the desired effect. The high has become routine. Though the stakes are not nearly as high, desire for a deep artistic experience, over and over again, is the same thing.

To recover from this undiagnosed case of digital fatigue, I am prescribing myself a regiment of non-computer activities: gardening, cooking meals, playing board games with my kids—and most therapeutic of all, cracking open an old-fashioned paper-and-ink book. My summer read is going to be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at aslagg@literarywritersnetwork.org.