The M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman has produced a highly personal polemic targeting the subversive impact on civilization of the increasingly frenetic pace of life. His book, In Praise of Wasting Time, proposes 'that half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection' ... As provocative and often entertaining as these and his more personal observations are, their connection to the emergence of 'the grid' is often tenuous at best.
At first glance, it seems more than a little ironic to read a case for wasting time from a man like Lightman. The MIT professor, TED talker and writer is as prolifically and comfortably at home in the fanciful world of novels as in the awe-inspiring world of astrophysics. Lightman’s obsession with time and its place in our universe goes way back ... I can’t help thinking that Lightman is probably trying to convince himself as much as his readers. But that might mean being a little less prolific ... Ever the scientist, Lightman constructs a careful and well-sourced argument, citing the anecdotes of artists, scientists and writers to build his case methodically and convincingly.
Lightman’s sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. In short, he blames the internet, but specifically smartphones. Being constantly wired chains us to our devices and deadlines and fosters a state of near-constant distraction that we give the optimistic label of 'multi-tasking.' The rise in adolescent depression, in particular, may be a direct consequence of this connected lifestyle. An addiction to social media, Lightman says, goes hand in hand with neurosis about missing out on friendship and affirmation. Yet he himself is no Luddite: he admits he’s recently acquired a smartphone and finds it invaluable for navigation, even as he recognizes in himself the worrying urge to check for messages every few minutes.