Friday, February 29, 2008

Binge Browsing

Hello, my name is Ann and I’m a Google addict. For a long time I didn’t think I had a problem. True, when I was home and sitting down, my laptop was usually in my lap. I could always claim I was writing. But a lot of the timeI wasn’t writing. I was “looking things up.” With my favorite search engine at my service, not the slightest curiosity went unsatisfied. Whatever I wanted to know, I could know it. Faust should have been so lucky, I thought.

Free of the tyranny of linear thinking, I’d bound from link to link as one thing reminded me of another and then another. Whatever ran through my mind quickly found expression in my Search History.

I didn’t even have to shut myself up in my office, thanks to the
further liberation of a wi-fi network. I could pursue my investigations
from anywhere in the house and I did. In bed. In front of the TV. On
the kitchen counter and the dining room table. Just as women used to
consider conversing and knitting to be complementary activities, I
could talk and web-browse at the same time – occasionally enlivening
the discussion with a choice morsel I’d come across. And with Google as
my home page, I was the family Answer Lady. “Let’s find out!” I’d say
brightly as soon as anyone ventured a question.

It’s a lucky stroke to have arrived at middle-age at roughly the same time as the Internet. I feel like I have an auxiliary brain. Can’t quite remember the name of the movie I saw last week? No need to wait until my memory reluctantly dredges it up. Just consult Mr. Google.

Needless to say, I have never liked to be parted from my laptop for long. But, thanks to a thief in Washington’s Union Station, I recently spent a webless week. The data were backed up and the machine itself was covered by insurance. But there was no reserve computer available and I was forced to go cold turkey.

Day one was brutal; I felt like someone had cut off my hands. Then I began to notice a contradictory dynamic: Everything took a lot longer to do, yet it felt like there was much more time. The “lot longer” part I had expected. Compared to going on, it seemed painfully labor-intensive to find a number in a phone book. (Not to mention that ours was years out of date.)

The surprise was that I had more time. Frustrating though it was to be
unable to search online for this or that, it slowly dawned on me that
most things I was so keen to look up, I didn’t actually need to know.
The days seemed to lengthen and I began to grasp what had happened to
all the time that had been disappearing from my life.

Where had I been?

On an extended tour of Wonderland, also known as the World Wide Web. I
think I understand why I find cyberspace so seductive. I’ve never been
happy following an orderly progression of ideas down a straight and
narrow path. A web is more my style. Lots of intriguing ways to get from here to there; lots of scenic detours to survey. And with the help of a willing and non-judgmental browser, you can explore each and every one. Taking all the time you want.

My new computer has arrived and I again appreciate its comforting weight on my lap. My Search History continues to serve as a kind of stream-of-consciousness autobiography. But my binge browsing days are over.

Pious Politicians

Here's a civics question: What successful candidate for President of the United States, when news leaked that he had never been baptized, announced that he'd get to it when he could - probably after the election? Hint: This didn't happen yesterday.
No recent presidential contender could have gotten out of the starting gate with such a casual attitude to the most basic ritual of Christian faith. The correct answer is Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Baptized or not, Ike considered himself a Christian, and it was he who signed off on inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.) In the half-century since the Eisenhower years, voters have come increasingly to expect candidates to fervently profess a personal relationship to the Almighty, in the form of the Christian God.

How did it happen that such public religiosity became a prerequisite for high office? This question is tackled in a recent book called “God in the White House,” by Randall Ballmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College. A self-professed evangelical Christian, Ballmer is also a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, and no fan of what he calls the “religionization” of the Oval Office.

It has been argued that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind, that they believed their new nation would be Christian in spirit. Some did, some didn't. Some did one week and didn't the next. Their writings can be (and often are) selectively quoted to favor either side of this issue. But the law of the land which they wisely chose to put in place holds that the institutions of church and state are to remain separate.

I am very uncomfortable when candidates push the God button. Presidential contenders do this while at the same time claiming that they intend to govern in a way that is “inclusive.” But in courting the approval of one, group of citizens, Christians namely, they are excluding people of other faiths as well as people of no faith. (I also wonder why, if an individual's relationship with God is personal, it should be offered up for public vetting. )

In writing this, I have had to resist the inclination to convey my own feelings about religion. They are not relevant to the point I'm making, and neither are anyone else's.