Reading: Addicted to Having All The Answers

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Addicted to Having All The Answers

Knowing all made her feel powerful and valuable. Here's what happened when she lost her connection to Google

By Ann Banks

Edwina White
Illustration by Edwina White

I’ve always wanted to know everything.

Not everything about a narrow though important topic like, say, the Treaty of Versailles. But everything about everything. And to my immense gratification there exists in my lifetime a means of satisfying this promiscuous curiosity. The moment I had my first connected computer in the late 1990s, the World Wide Web lured me down the rabbit hole. With my favorite search engine at my service, whatever I wanted to know, I could know it. Not the slightest curiosity went unsatisfied. Faust should have been so lucky, I thought.

 

MY ADDICTION TO KNOWING DEVOURS MY LIFE

As the Internet took over more and more of my life, I came to think of it as a marvelously useful auxiliary brain. Couldn’t quite remember the name of the movie I saw last week? Trying to win an argument with my husband about whether a full house beats a straight flush? No need to wait until my memory reluctantly dredged up the information. Instead, I could just consult Dr. Google, my personal know-it-all.

For a long time, I didn’t think of this as a problem. True, when I was home and sitting down, my laptop was nearly always in my lap. I might have claimed I was writing, but most of the time I wasn’t writing. I was “looking things up.” Whatever ran through my mind quickly found expression in my search history. Free of the tyranny of linear thinking, I’d bound from link to link as one thing reminded me of another and then another.

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. At 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, whenever anyone in the room ventured a question, I’d say brightly, “Let’s find out!”

 

I BECOME THE ANSWER LADY

My reputation as the Answer Lady spread beyond my immediate family, and I was always willing to help out with research, no subject too obscure.  Once I found an acupuncturist in Wollongong, Australia, for my friend’s daughter, who had developed foot pain during her semester abroad. Another time I turned up a used kayak for a friend who wanted one. (Any excuse to browse Craigslist.)

The Internet kept developing other ways to consume my attention. I loved keeping up with my cousins’ babies on Facebook. (Who doesn’t want to watch a few minutes of video of a two-year-old discovering her shadow for the first time?) And when I posted a photo of my daughter in her cap and gown, it was lovely to hear from her favorite babysitter, now living three states away. But the world has changed in ways that make my time online seem even more compelling.

These days my Facebook feed is more likely to be crowded with pictures of pink-hatted marchers and urgent pleas to make phone calls to this or that politician. (It will only take two minutes of your time!)

Even though I’ve given a pass to Instagram, Snapchat, and endless other new modes of Internet communication, I’ve recently dipped cautiously into Twitter.  I’ve learned it can be a real-time window into events unfolding around the world.  After the Taliban’s Easter bombing in Lahore, I was comforted to come across a reference that directed me to tweets from #LahoreStrong, an organization that promotes tolerance in Pakistan. And my Twitter feed serves as a great curation service, offering links to must-watch Saturday Night Live videos and Meryl Streep speeches.  

 

I LOSE MY GOOGLE CONNECTION

With so much to attract me in cyberspace, I am never voluntarily parted from my laptop for long. A few years ago, however, a thief in Washington’s Union Station made off with my machine. My data was backed up and the machine itself covered by insurance, but there was no reserve computer available and I was forced into exile from my virtual Garden of Knowledge.

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 “a lot longer” part I had expected. Compared to Google Maps, it seemed painfully labor intensive to figure out driving directions from a paper atlas.

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. My days seemed to lengthen and I began to grasp what had happened to all the untold hours that had been disappearing from my life. I went on leisurely walks with friends (unaccompanied by Fitbits). I pulled out my mother’s favorite cookbook, A General’s Diary of Treasured Recipes by Brigadier Gen Frank Dorn, and attempted the chocolate cake recipe which is famous in our household because of its exacting instructions for sifting the flour.

 

I BREAK MY ADDICTION TO GET MY LIFE BACK

In the fullness of time — about a week actually — my replacement computer arrived and I was again able to experience its cozy warmth in my lap. But I learned a lesson from my unconnected interlude.    

I think I’ve come to 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 nonjudgmental browser, you can explore each and every one. Taking all the time you want.

But while you are taking the time to explore the Internet’s riches, it is also taking time. Yours. I’ve come to recognize that binge browsing is an addiction. I can’t say that I have conquered it. My search history continues to serve as a kind of stream-of-consciousness autobiography. But I am more aware of the costs, and every so often I declare an Internet fast day. Just to remind myself. 

 

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