reading more, reading less

I realized the other day that I’m reading more daily than I ever have before,
but that I hadn’t opened a book in about 2 weeks. For this I blame both
my own inclinations and the technology which enables me to pursue them: RSS
feeds, or more prosaically, blogs.

When I first began seriously working in technology, I became a contract
systems administrator, working with a consulting group composed nearly
entirely of ferociously bright, technically agile, people, most of whom could
multi-task like a many-armed Shiva on speed. A good number of my coworkers
began as or became close friends of mine, and over the course of a day I’d
observe them interacting with clients, sharing expertise on our company IRC
server, writing devastatingly cutting missives to social mailinglists, and
keeping an eye on the news of the day. Impressive, yes, but initially
perplexing to me. Over the course of 15 minutes, I’d watch the person I was
apprenticed to do a cycle amongst their carefully placed terminal windows:
work email (rare), work IRC channels (technical), social mail (moderate),
social IRC channels (chatty), web browser, and then back to the task at hand,
which was fieldstripping a client’s Powerbook Duo to put in more memory. And
then again for the next 15 minutes, and the next after that. Naively, I
thought that it would be far easier to simply finish the memory installation
and take a 45 minute lunch break to look at the other stuff (though I never
said this out loud).

Soon enough I was the experienced hand at this particular job site, and
despite my earlier skepticism, found myself doing my own version of this
dance. This was 1997, and more and more companies were putting websites on
the net; my list of sites to check grew steadily. News sites, friends’
homepages, old corporate entities and new technology startups, blinking
graphics, the ubiquitious yellow roadsign-like “Under Construction” images
which ten years later you have to look fairly hard to find, the Internet has
come so far. Each site updated sporadically, if at all, and in a very mild
version of a kid’s Christmas Eve imaginings that Santa Claus might have come
by now and wouldn’t it be a good idea to get out of bed and check the
stockings just in case, I’d go and check a series of bookmarked URLs for
anything novel, receiving just the kind of irregular reinforcement good animal
trainers know will induce astoundingly repetitive behavior in pretty much
every animal known to (and including) man.

Not something I’m particularly proud of, the amount of time I spent checking
for mostly trivial informational flotsam, but it happened, and I was hardly
atypical among my peers for earning a stupid salary to solve technical
problems and “surf” the web between crises. Surfing, though, is probably a
less apt metaphor for what we did and do than “channel flipping.” “Surfing”
sounds like fun; this was the equivalent of picking up a magazine at the
doctor’s office and rapidly fanning it in front of my face, looking for a
good article.

Now, some ten years later, the habit’s only worsened. Easy access to RSS
aggregators originally saved me time — the twenty or thirty sites I wanted
to keep an eye on, all gathered together in one place! What could be better?
— until I turned around and filled the saved time with … more RSS feeds.
Each of them potentially interesting, each of them recommended by someone or
carrying a news snippet I wanted to know more about, until I’d put nearly 150
feeds into Bloglines and now had a place on the web to go where I’d be
guaranteed to find new content whenever I had a momentary urge to distract
myself from a difficult task at hand.

I read too damn many blogs. I spend my reading time scanning headlines,
looking for the (many) articles that pique my interest, and while I love the
panoply of information I have access to, I hadn’t sat down to read a book in
weeks before getting on this flight to Tucson. And it turns out I miss
reading books with the same avid thrill I used to, and I can see that ducking
off a task to go scan headlines now makes me feel a little mentally seasick,
later.

So as an experiment, I’m knocking my blog subscriptions down to just those
written by my friends, and those involving comics, and just one or two of the
food/political/news/BoingBoing feeds. We’ll see how many I can let go of,
and how it’ll feel to not see updates as frequently.

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