New media have nearly-limitless time-wasting potential. How do we rein it in?
Time is wasted when we get distracted from our purpose or when we have no purpose to begin with. This happens when we go to new media with open-ended questions or impulses. For example, if I want to know "what's on TV," I am signing up for a meandering journey with the remote that could consume any amount of time. And if I sit down at the computer because I am feeling lonely and it offers various products vaguely resembling the company of others, once again I could be in for a long, ultimately-unsatisfying ride.
Purposefulness in approaching these media can go a long way toward reaping the best things they promise without becoming enslaved to the worst of their possibilities. If I go to the TV to watch game 3 of the National League Championship Series, my commitment has definite bounds I am able to evaluate before choosing to engage. If I go to my computer to answer three different e-mails, there is a better chance that I will accomplish exactly what I set out to than if I just open the lid of my computer and see where it takes me.
Note that such thoughtfulness is not nearly so imperative when using older media. There are not too many ways to get tripped up when reading a book. You may read for longer than you intend, but you are still completing a task you knew you wanted to complete at some point. But in general the newer the medium, the better it is at presenting appealing distractions. Media providers make more money the longer consumers are engaged, and so they have made engaging consumers into something of a science.
For instance, last week I signed up for a trial streaming subscription of Netflix. I thought of doing so as gaining access to a library of movies and TV shows. But it was clear that Netflix thought of itself as something more than that. Right off the bat it wanted me to give it some examples of works I liked. It also wanted me to plug in a facebook account so it could tell me what my friends were watching and vice versa. Moreover after everything I watched it asked me in prominent type to rate what I had seen, the better to know the profile of my tastes. Perhaps most subtly and impressively, after one installment of a series started rolling the credits it gave no more than than fifteen seconds before going straight into the next.
So the system is constantly priming itself to dig out new things its consumers will like, and it is actually more work to stop watching than it is to continue. Netflix clearly intends to be more than a library that passively waits to be accessed. Rather it aspires to be a constant stream of entertainment freeing users to think as little as possible in order to be engaged for as long as possible.
For those who aspire to nothing more than enjoyment, that kind of service is an incredible innovation well worth the modest monthly fee. But for those seeking to use new media for their own bidding in larger pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, discipline is paramount.
Know the questions you seek to answer before sitting down. Answer them, and then stand up.