The Paper-and-Pen Thought Experiment

L0011942 Portrait of Sir Ronald Ross at his desk

You can waste a whole lot of time on the internet. You might be doing that right now. There’s Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. You can read for hours without learning a thing. And then you find yourself having accomplished nothing, feeling like a drag on society, like an inmate serving a life sentence or like the Measles.

To avoid the temptations of the internet, I try to unplug and spend time with just paper and pen. Sadly, though, that only works for so long—I need the computer to get most real work done.

Aziz Ansari, the comedian, recently quit social media because he found that he was wasting too much time refreshing his feed. He has an interesting way of thinking through whether any new, shiny online tool is worthwhile.

Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, ‘I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it.’ Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.

There’s something to this. Even if I can’t stick to paper and pen and get real work done, I can still use it as a kind of thought experiment. What would I be doing right now if it were 1962? To start, I’d probably be smoking a cigarette. I’d be sitting at a table covered in paper and clutching a fountain pen. And I would not spend that time sorting through photographs of other people’s cats. So why am I doing just that on Instagram?

For that matter, Instagram is not the modern version of a stack of photographs—it’s the modern version of that cigarette. We turn to these sites as a drug, as a cure for boredom, the way a bored lab rat nudges a lever. And, as with any drug, if we can’t consume moderately, abstinence may be the way to go.