One crisp Saturday morning in the fall of 2014, I announced a new course on my modest Twitter feed: “My class, called Wasting Time on the Internet, will be offered @Penn next semester,” along with a link to the course description:
We spend our lives in front of screens, mostly wasting time: checking social media, watching cat videos, chatting, and shopping. What if these activities—clicking, SMSing, status updating, and random surfing—were used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature? Could we reconstruct our autobiography using only Facebook? Could we write a great novella by plundering our Twitter feed? Could we reframe the Internet as the greatest poem ever written? Using our laptops and a Wi-Fi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media, and LISTSERVs. To bolster our practice, we’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time wasting through critical texts. Distraction, multitasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.
A few hours later, when I checked back, the tweet had gone viral, accompanied by comments like: “Wait I believe I already have a PhD in that” and “I’d ace it.” In my feed was a request from Vice for an interview, which I gave a day later. Shortly afterward, I found a message in my inbox from the Washington Post also requesting an interview, which I gave. From then on, I was inundated daily with interview requests, all of which—with the exception of some mainstream television shows—I declined. With a shortage of new chum in the waters from me, what ensued was a media feeding frenzy, which ultimately ended up consuming itself.
After the two interviews in Vice and the Washington Post, I noticed a spate of second-tier news sites that basically reprinted the Vice and Post pieces in their entirety, slapped on new opening and concluding sentences, gave it a new title, and added a byline. A few days later, a bunch of third-tier sites did the same thing to the text of the second-tier sites. It was a massive game of copy and paste, far from what we consider to be upholding standards of original journalism. It was an object lesson not only on how information travels in a world of cut and paste but also how quickly it can devolve into distorted disinformation.
With the torrents of press—good and bad—the waiting list for the class had swelled to more than one hundred students for only fifteen seats. After much anticipation, the class finally convened in January 2015 in an oak-paneled Ivy League room. The surroundings—which included a huge oval antique wooden table around which the class gathered—were incongruous with the task at hand. Yet this distinguished room was equipped with racks of audio, video, and Internet equipment, as well as a flat-screen monitor that adorned an otherwise empty wall above the classical wainscoting. An antique chandelier hovered over the table. Because of its location on the university backbone of the Internet, the Wi-Fi in the room was industrial strength. The students filtered into the room, opened their laptops, and—without a word—began wasting time on the Internet. Few instructions were given other than the fact that “something” needed to be written and submitted, culled from these sessions.
From the start, it was a disaster. The students drifted aimlessly for three hours barely using the social media and LISTSERVs that had been set up for them. With no one to guide or critique them, the writing they produced at the end of each session was dreadful, reflecting the unfocused experience they were having in this class. During cigarette breaks, the students looked isolated, exhausted, and irritated. I wasn’t sure what to do. In my decade of teaching at Penn, I had never seen a group of students as demoralized as these. Clearly, my experiment was failing.
After one of those breaks, I was sitting at a table outside the room trying to figure out how to solve this mess with my TA when, from out of nowhere, music started blasting from behind the closed doors in the classroom. When we got up to see what was going on, we found all fifteen students, up out of their chairs, dancing madly to Khia’s X-rated rap song “My Neck, My Back,” which was blaring from all fifteen laptops streaming the identical YouTube video. One student commandeered the huge screen on the wall by jacking his computer into it, playing the video on the monitor, and pumping the sound through the room’s speakers. The room resembled a cross between a television showroom—where all the TVs are lined up in a row playing the same show—and a disco. I wasn’t sure what happened, but something had changed.
As it turns out, one of the students sent a request to the LISTSERV in silence, asking everyone to participate in a writing exercise she needed help with. Her idea was for everyone in the room to pick a song and play it aloud. She would then listen to the cacophony of lyrics and write down snippets from random lyrics she heard, coming up with an audio portrait in words. The students obliged, but the cacophony of fifteen computers each playing a different song proved to be too overwhelming for her to extract anything worthwhile. Instead, breaking the rules, the class began a lively discussion, brainstorming on how they could help make her project better. They decided to see what would happen if they all played the same song at the same time, which was, in short, how they stopped writing and started dancing. As soon as that song ended, they began debating the next song to play. The video was queued, and on the count of three, everyone pushed Start. The next song began, and the dancing resumed. For the next two hours, until the class ended, all they did was dance.
The next week in class, fully energized and working as a group, they began to throw around other ideas for wasting time on the Internet that they could do together. Gone was the lethargy; gone was the silence. In their place, dozens of ideas flew around the room, which were debated and tested. Some were great; many failed.
One particularly provocative idea was for everybody to open their laptops and pass them to the person seated to their left. For the next minute, that person could open anything on the laptop—any document, folder, or file. The only rules were that nothing could be altered or deleted and, for transparency’s sake, no windows that had been opened could be closed. At the end of a minute, the laptops would be passed again to the person sitting to the left of them, and so forth, until every machine had traveled around the table and fifteen different people had a turn with everybody’s computer. Upon hearing this proposition, my students’ faces went white. I could feel the fear rippling through the room. There was hesitation. Some expressed reservations: “My whole life is on that laptop!” or “I’ve never allowed anyone to touch my laptop before.” But once they realized that everyone was in the same position of radical vulnerability, they agreed to cautiously proceed.
What transpired was both fascinating and a bit anticlimactic. I saw one woman hesitantly eyeing someone’s laptop, which had landed in front of her. She pecked at a few keys, opened a couple of windows, and passed it on. I watched another student as he dug a few levels deep into a directory, found a Word document, opened it, glanced quickly at it, and proceeded to dig around some more. Finally, when your laptop made its way back to you, you saw exactly what everyone had looked at. My laptop returned with my iPhoto open, several of my downloaded videos playing, and a bunch of financial spreadsheets cracked. Someone had gone through my e-mails; someone searched for the word “porn”; someone else took a peek at my book in progress. Upon inspecting their computers, they had a variety of responses, mostly of amusement. As it turns out, even if, for example, somebody’s diaries were found, there hadn’t been enough time to uncover the juicy parts. After all, there wasn’t much to see in a minute’s time, and revenge awaited: they’d have a turn with your laptop soon enough.
The exercise was demystifying. It began to dawn on everybody that what we have on our laptops is, by and large, the same as what everyone else has on their laptops—a jumble of documents and files that mean a lot to us—but unless someone was looking for something very specific, our stuff didn’t matter much to anybody else. Afterward, I could feel a palpable sense of relief in the room. I could see my students’ bodies relaxing and the tension draining from their faces as they began connecting with their neighbors, sharing what other people opened, and laughing about it. What they feared—a massive invasion of privacy—didn’t happen in the ways they feared it would. Instead, the opposite happened: the room felt deeply connected, physically and emotionally, through those interactions with machines. They took a risk and as a result found themselves having crossed a certain threshold, one that allowed new levels of trust and intimacy and permitted them to move forward as a group into uncharted waters.
The stakes got higher: they began doing “data duels,” in which two people would get up in front of the class, exchange laptops, stand back-to-back, walk ten paces, turn around, face each other, and, at the count of three, each would delete one document from the other’s computer and empty the trash. Before handing the laptops back, all windows were closed so they’d never know which document was deleted. A year later, I still have no idea which documents I lost, which reminds me that maybe my data isn’t as precious as I thought it was.
Over the months, the class evolved into an idea generator on how a group of people in a room could waste time on the Internet together:
Venmo $100 to the person to your right. They must then Venmo $100 to the person to their right and so on until your money goes full circle and returns to you.
Work in a group to invent a rumor. Spread the rumor on as many social media sites as possible.
Do a background check on the person to your left. Find every detail about them: addresses, schools, e-mail, hobbies, groups, publications, work, criminal record, family members, etc. Find everything you can by any means necessary. Hack into their accounts if necessary. Save what you find in a document. Send it to them.
In a group, have everyone put their addresses in a bowl in the middle and each person draws one at random. Go to eBay and buy that person a present for less than one dollar.
As a group, choose a popular album of music. Find the worst possible versions of each song on the web, be it a terrible cover on YouTube, a bad-quality download, a virus-laden download, a misheard lyrics version, or a horrible remix. Reconstruct the album out of these new versions.
One week, a challenge was made to see who, after fifteen minutes, could tally the largest dollar amount by adding things to their Amazon shopping cart. When it was finished, the winner tallied $23,475,104.18 by clicking on vintage postage stamps, sports memorabilia, and expensive jewelry. Most people quickly emptied everything in their cart, fearing that they’d mistakenly hit a Buy button, putting them into debt for thousands or even millions of dollars. I forgot to empty mine, whereupon the next day at work, I got a panicked call from my wife, freaked out that someone had hacked our Amazon account to the tune of $2.5 million. I had some explaining to do. After each exercise, everyone in the room would restart their computer—a ceremonial cleansing that became a ritual. As computer start-up chimes tolled throughout the room, it was a sign that it was time to begin a new activity.
And so it went, week after week. I soon dropped the writing requirement, for the experience of wasting time on the Internet together in the same room far surpassed any artifact that would result from it. We came to the conclusion that when we waste time on the Internet, we usually do it alone or as a parallel activity—like in a dorm or a library—which is why the first few classes failed. By inserting the network and machine into the midst of physically based social interaction, new forms of communal activity were possible. The class was remarkably close to the experience of playing Twister, in which physical commands are decreed by an apparatus—the spinner—which tells you where to put your hands and feet. Because you must follow the edicts of the machine (the spinner is a primitive machine) your body ends up in places it normally wouldn’t. Even when those positions are awkward—your nose ends up in somebody’s crotch—no offense is taken because it’s the machine that dictates where the body goes. Arguably, that’s what makes it fun. (It’s been said that Twister was the first board game to ever use human beings as pieces.) We all agreed to play together and play by the rules, whatever the outcome may be. The presence of machines at the center of our social interactions seemed to temper whatever emotional responses we had to what were, at times, some white-knuckle moments. Like Twister, if things got too uncomfortable, we could always blame it on the machine rather than on a fellow student. Emotionally, the tone stayed cool, often verging on flat and mechanical, even when they were having fun. The dancing was wild, but wholly self-conscious; after all, this was an Ivy League university not a nightclub. There was no catharsis; we never had a group hug. Instead, there was a lot of affect flying around the room.
Affect is the powerful but often invisible emotional temperature in any given social situation, for instance, when you walk into a room that feels so tense you could “cut it with a knife,” although there are no visible signs of that tension. It’s similar to being afraid and noticing your palms are sweating, a palpable reaction that—with the exception of a handshake—is mostly invisible to others. Sweaty palms are an affective pre-emotion, as opposed to the full-blown emotions of screaming, laughing, or crying. Perhaps the most famous instance of affect is Pavlov’s dog salivating. Affect is an inventory of shimmers, nuances, and states. Contagious, leaping from one body to another, affect infects those nearby with microemotions and microfeelings, pulsating extensions of our bodies’ nervous systems. Our online lives are saturated with affect, our sensations amplified and projected by the network. Our Wi-Fi networks—carriers of affect—are invisible but ubiquitous, transmitting pulses and sensations through the air that have the potential to convert to emotions when displayed on our screens. This goes a long way to explain how hyperemotional social networking is, even on such a cold platform. Affect accounts for why things go viral on the networks. An invisible force, affect makes everything contagious.
When I e-mail a resume to apply for a job, my affectual state flickers somewhere between nervousness and hope. When I receive a response from that query, my affect is anticipation that will undoubtedly convert to emotion once I open the mail. Because of the time lag—an interval of even microseconds—online communications are affective in every way; most likely the receiver of that e-mail is also in an affective state. Watching someone await a response to a text message is a demonstration of anticipatory affect in that interval. In this way, the web is telepathic: we send an e-mail, post a status update, send a Facebook message, and then we wait, anticipating the nature of the response. Web communication is like fishing; dropping a line in the water and hoping that something will bite. But because we are addressing the entire world—an unprecedented situation—we don’t really know to whom we are speaking, which sometimes results in tragic misunderstanding and miscommunication: we thought we were doing one thing but it turns out we were doing something else. Still, it is telepathy that makes the vast connections possible—between writers and readers, coders and viewers, followers and friends, not to mention members of online communities—all of which is transmitted by affect.
The content of Wi-Fi is radio, an earlier affectual wireless transmission technology. Ezra Pound, writing in 1934, famously called the artist “the antennae of the race.” Pound used a new technological metaphor—the radio antenna—in order to propose a visionary occult use for it. As few artists were exclusively using radio as their medium, Pound was using new technology to describe very old media: sculpture, painting, and poetry. In this way, Pound was referring to what has become known as “hauntology,” a term invented by Jacques Derrida to describe “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive,” which also describes the way newer media is haunted by the old. In the nineteenth century, séances used machines such as the Ouija board through which voices and ideas, many of them long dead, were transmitted to the living—literally as “ghosts in the machine”; our twenty-first-century Wi-Fi transmissions bear eerie similarities.
Like the occult, affect works against narrative: it isn’t conclusive or curative; instead, it’s static, continual, hovering, and conditional. As a result, my class had no denouement or dramatic conclusion. In a room full of machines and gadgets it was, ironically, the body and its small human gestures—the affective gestures—that drove the class. People say that technology creates distance between people, but we found it to be just the opposite: our physical and emotive experiences were intensified through our devices. By merging our bodies with the network, we became highly attuned and acutely sensitive to everyone in the room. The class’s success was predicated on our bodies being together in the same space. Telecommuting or a MOOC (massive online open course) would simply have reified typically distanced ways of being online; our experience was, to put it mildly, rather atypical. In that room, every action was a transmission. Something as simple as students turning their laptops around to share with the class what they discovered while wasting time on the Internet triggered a series of electric responses, ones that pierced every body and mind in the room. It was, literally, a meatspace social network.
I’m in a large room in Berlin—where I’ve been brought to lead a four-hour workshop—on a gray, rainy Saturday afternoon wasting time on the Internet with a hundred people. They’ve all been required to bring their laptops and devices, which are connected to a lightning-speed Wi-Fi connection. I start by telling the group a story about how I once had a student who did a project in which he took his bank PIN code, blew it up huge on a flag, and ran it up a flagpole in the center of campus in the middle of the night when no one was looking. The next day, his PIN—his most private information—was...