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?
In this spring semester, poet and Penn Professor Kenneth Goldsmith is offering a seminar “Wasting Time on the Internet” to Penn creative writing students. The quote above is part of the course description, according to which laptop and Wi-Fi connection will be the only class materials, and distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory. What students will do in the 3-hour class is literally “wasting time” on the Internet. Making it even more “social”, interactions between students and instructor will only happen via online channels like social media and chat rooms. At the end of the semester, students will be asked to produce a literary work based on their “time-wasting” experience.
When asked about the rationale behind such a bold attempt, Professor Goldsmith told the Atlantic “it’s about understanding that digital existence. You know, we’ve been so good at using tools, but we’ve rarely stepped back to consider how and why we’re using the tools. Even becoming conscious of the mechanical process of cutting and pasting is something we’ve never done; this begins the process of defamiliarization.” Disagree with the public view that wasting time on the Internet and social media has made us dumber, Goldsmith believes that people are actually reading and writing more, only in a different fashion and in a different context. Goldsmith told the Washington Post that he wanted to place his student “into a digital or electronic twilight”, comparing such experience to the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting prized by Situationists and Surrealists.
I guess wasting time online is our modern day version of stream of consciousness. It’s quite exhilarating to know that we can discover the artistic value of our everyday “boredom” and “mundaneness”. We have been taking our Internet life for granted and never really thought about documenting or reflecting on our behaviors and choices. However, what we browse online and how we switch from one page to another might say a lot about who we are and how we process information. Professor Goldsmith’s class seems like a frame breaking attempt that challenges academic and social norms. I look forward to seeing what will come out of this exciting course.