Next semester at the University of Pennsylvania, students will walk into a classroom, pull out their laptops, their smartphones, their tablets, and sit there, for three hours, doing what they no doubt do pretty often: Waste time on the internet.
The Ivy League school's newest creative writing class is trying to remove the stigma from an activity that millions of people do on a daily basis, in an attempt to explore how our minds might work when we're totally aimlessly clicking through reddit or Facebook or Buzzfeed or watching porn or doing whatever the hell people do in their free time.
"I'm very tired of reading articles in the New York Times every week that make us feel bad about spending so much time on the internet, about dividing our attention so many times," Kenneth Goldsmith, a world-renowned poet and the course's professor, told me. "I think it's complete bullshit that the internet is making us dumber. I think the internet is making us smarter. There's this new morality built around guilt and shame in the digital age."
I want their attention across tablets, phones, screens, music. I want it divided many, many times
So, his students will explore what, exactly, wasting time even means. Is it a waste of time to tap out some forum posts or internet comments? Is it a waste of time to gchat with your friends? Is it a waste of time to click through YouTube videos? Can we consciously or even unconsciously channel the things we do on the internet to make a work of art or the next great American novel or an autobiography?
His students will be tasked with trying. For much of the class, they'll be wasting time online, sure, but at some point, they're going to have to take the raw material of all that time wasting—browser histories, text messages, screenshots, who knows what else—and turn it into a "compelling and emotional work of literature."
Goldsmith's earlier attempt to print out the internet. Image: Printing the Internet
Goldsmith says that for much of the 20th century, artists and writers spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to tap into their subconscious minds, looking for new ways to create surreal works. With our daily use of the internet, we may have—subconsciously, it turns out—found a way to do that rather easily.
"We're trying to wrench an artistic product out of that state of distraction that's naturally created by talking on the phone with someone and surfing the internet at the same time, or by watching a video and chatting," he said. "That's the desired state in the class—even half being there is too generous. I want their attention across tablets, phones, screens, music. I want it divided many, many times."
"Electronic distraction and multitasking is the new surrealism—surrealists wanted to get unconscious, well, we're doing that now all the time," he added.
We can look forward to wasting time on the internet instead of deriding it
This comes from the man who once tried to get the world to "print out the internet," the idea being that everything on it is worth saving and archiving, that the internet is the "greatest poem ever written," but is unreadable because of its size. He says that we're all "building an incredible portrait of what it's like to be alive now."
In doing so, he hopes that he and his students might just be able to erase the stigma that's now so closely related with staring at a screen all day, a stigma that he believes is highly misplaced. We're writing now, and reading now, more than ever: If those things are chats and tweets and reddit posts and forum posts, does it really matter?
"We're writing an enormous amount, but somehow the culture keeps devaluing that. I think, yes, this is real writing," he said. "If we can claim that writing as poetry, [then] that alienation and guilt can be expunged and the writing can be celebrated. We can look forward to wasting time on the internet instead of deriding it."