Let's not allow our digressions to get the better part of us

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 1, 2009

“I was just thinking,” my mom said on a recent trip to the National Art Gallery. “This is just one painting ... this alone would take so long and then you look around … and … where did they find the time?”

My father, never without an answer, quickly chimed in: “Well, sweetheart, he didn’t have Wii or PlayStation.”

Now, everyone has heard some rendition of this argument. The question of whether the myriad of technological distractions in our daily lives inhibits our propensity to create or better ourselves is valid. To my father's point, the Dutch master, Jan Lievens, also didn't have the Internet, DVR and TiVo, or cell phones. As we stood in front of Lieven's masterpiece, “The Triumph of Peace,” I gave his quip some legitimate thought. 

Two weeks before, sitting at a local sports bar with my parents, I surveyed the surrounding tables. Within a 20-foot radius of our table, there was a girl I went to high school with and three guys I knew from college. Despite a few lackluster attempts, none of us made eye contact, and for three hours we were able to avoid exchanging so much as a nod. Here’s the crux of my consternation: We are all Facebook friends.

Even for me, a supposed product of these times and technologies, it was stupefying. There we were, four people who once knew one another in real life and are now content with the ability to merely know about one another without having to actually know one another. Huxley and Vonnegut would have gotten a kick out of this. 

As I began to dissect the encounter and why the rules for being friends online differ so greatly from being friends in real life, the answer was obvious: Online friendships are often a manifestation of two basic human indulgences: vanity and voyeurism. The more friends on one's list, the more connected one seems, no matter how flimsy the relationship — high school girl and I were never even friends in high school — and also, the more friends on one's list means more profiles and pictures to peruse. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not think social networking sites are the end of the world and human interaction — though the sports bar situation certainly makes me wonder — in fact, I agree with many of the points Greg Wasserman made in his article on Dec. 30. My beef with social networking sites is that they are a small representation of the much larger issue my father touched upon. I know how much time can be wasted frivolously clicking through albums or how much time and effort some people put into their glaringly contrived profiles — it's scary.

Never before have humans had so many mediums and tools in which they can learn and interact. While arguments abound for and against, I am on the fence. Can Facebook be a great tool to keep in touch with friends, meet new people and exchange ideas? Yes. Can video games and on-demand television provide a nice reprieve from a tedious day? Yes. Can these activities easily digress into hours of mindless channel-surfing or "Facebook stalking" when we could be creating, contributing to society and bettering ourselves? Yes.

I am not naive. I recognize the amount of people centuries ago churning out painting after painting was minimal compared to those who were not. Most considered a day successful if they went to bed plague-free. But doesn't that make us look even worse? We are spoiled with luxuries. Even time has become a luxury. So much so that we can worry about the aesthetics of our online profiles, waste away the day playing video games, catch up on missed episodes of "The Office" or quibble with strangers on Web sites.   

I have no room to talk, since lately it seems I live and die by batteries and am told daily that it is my job to know these technologies inside out. However, I am going to try and do a better job of using these tools with due diligence. It will be hard, and self-discipline has only occasionally been my forte, but we all must not let our digressions get the better part of us. If you can honestly say you have never marveled at the amount of time you have just squandered watching "CSI" repeats or looking at pictures of your ex-babysitter's husband's niece, then kudos. If the answer is yes, then maybe you will join me. 

Oh, and in case you were wondering, my "friends" from the sports bar are doing just fine. When I got home that night, I got on Facebook and spent a little time catching up with each one of them. 

Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. Please do not "friend" him just because you read this article.

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