Shall I admit all of the things I have done instead of writing this article? I have refreshed my Twitter feed more times than I can count, letting news break over me like waves on the beach. I have reread—skimming, really—an essay by Charles Baudelaire that touches on themes similar to those I planned to explore here. I have signed up for a fantasy football league. I have watched—over and over and over again—a video of an emu in repose (a video I took, I might add). I have wandered, stumbling from here to there, strolling between browser tabs and devices, whittling away at what remained of the day.
My editor might disagree, but I think the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith would say that these empty hours were well spent. In his new book, Wasting Time on the Internet, based on a class of the same name that he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldsmith gradually builds a winking argument in my defense. There is, he slyly, if only suggestively, proposes, no such thing as truly wasted time on the internet.
While Goldsmith is known for courting controversy, this may be his greatest provocation. After all, “surfing,” the founding metaphor of interaction with the web, is one that evokes days spent far from the office. But, if I read him right, Goldsmith’s central lesson is that wasting time actually takes a great deal of effort, just as hanging 10 is easier described than accomplished. Digital loafing can be exhausting precisely because it can be rewarding. And the moment it starts to reward, it ceases to be truly wasteful.
Even the internet’s greatest evangelists tend to struggle with the ugly feelings it generates. Virginia Heffernan writes in her recent Magic and Loss that “consuming art here [online] feels like truancy, like something shady, something you shouldn’t be doing.” To Heffernan’s way of thinking, that’s a good thing, a product of art’s capacity for estrangement—the way it shakes us out of established rhythms and norms should make us feel dirty, she holds.
Though he comes from a similar background, Goldsmith takes a slightly different tack, proposing that we should free ourselves from shame and embrace the value of waste—a project that may well be self-defeating. “I think it’s time to drop the simplistic guilt about wasting time on the Internet and instead begin to explore—and perhaps even celebrate—the complex possibilities that lay before us,” he pronounces.
For all that, Goldsmith spends surprisingly little of the book talking about the ways that most of us actually waste time online. There’s a cute cat on the cover, sure, but he has almost nothing to say about cute cat videos—or about reading through repetitive Reddit comment threads or about vacuous browser games or about Wikipedia deep dives. He admits that he finds himself falling back on the stupefying comforts of Facebook, deeming it easier to get what he needs there than in the web’s less developed domains. He’s likely not alone in that respect: One consumer research firm recently found that social networking and messaging platforms capture fully one-third of the time we spend online.
But Goldsmith suggests we must remind ourselves that the internet is a chaotic and fragmentary place, despite its increasingly corporate boulevards and broadways. Where books like this one often propose some grand theory of the digital culture, Goldsmith instead argues that we should treat “the disjunctive as a more organic way of framing what is, in essence, a medium that defies singularity.” In other words, we should let the internet remain a scattered patchwork, refusing to “stitch together these various shards into something unified and coherent.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. Goldsmith’s most provocative proposals come in the form of chapter titles: “Archiving Is the New Folk Art” he tells us at the start of one that has more to say about Samuel Johnson and Andy Warhol than it does about Pinterest. Another wants us to think of “The Writer as Meme Machine” without ever clearly defining what such a contraption would entail. “Our Browser History Is the New Memoir” proposes a third that’s built around a more conventionally memoiristic account of drinking wine on the Adriatic coast.
Reading Goldsmith’s thoughts, I began to wonder whether it’s actually possible to discuss digital culture in its own terms. Perhaps it’s that the web has gotten too big, or perhaps it’s that its offerings have grown too familiar. Regardless, his efforts suggest that we can no longer see its jagged edges, too contented with familiar pathways to dredge through the murky gutters that run beside them.
It’s seemingly with this difficulty in mind that Goldsmith appends a list of “101 Ways to Waste Time on the Internet” to the end of his book. Developed in and for his UPenn course, some of these suggestions will be familiar to those who’ve read Katy Waldman’s article on her experiences in the seminar: One, for example, calls on participants to pass their laptops in a circle, opening any files or programs of their choosing. Others feel like introductory lessons in trolling: “Within the constraint of two hundred words, try to offend as many people as possible in a Facebook post.”
These activities may be conscious attempts to disrupt our standard operating procedures, which is probably why none of them resemble things that any ordinary person would do while simply loafing about online. Goldsmith may not want to break the internet, but he does want to break it down, liberating us from its prison houses of productivity, making it strange once again.
There is something paradoxical about such a project, not least of all because there may be something generative about it. Indeed, Goldsmith ultimately acknowledges that “artists routinely waste time as part of their creative process, thereby cleverly and self-reflexively conflating procrastination with production.” Waldman noticed something similar in her visit to the poet’s classroom, finding that it “reshape[d] the matter of the Internet” instead of exploring its meanings. One way or another, we never really log out of our lives when we log on: It’s work all the way down, so might as well make something of it, however peculiar those works might be.
Wasting Time on the Internet really does offer something like a theory of our digital culture, then—an account of how we should be online rather than a story about the ways we are. It’s a theory that arguably owes more to 19th-century romanticism than it does to the postmodernist pastiches that made Goldsmith famous. Think of that earlier era’s gardens, festooned with shattered towers designed for aesthetic effect rather than eventual habitation. Goldsmith’s suggested exercises similarly aim to produce pleasurable serendipity, but they can only do so by giving shape to the supposedly formless hours we spend online. At best, then, Wasting Time on the Internet might free us to wander once again, reminding us that there’s nothing more productive than trying to produce nothing at all.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.