Archive | Commentary

Commentaries about anything that interests Mark. How’s that for open ended?

The Digital Sabbath, or Why I Never Reply to Your Emails on Saturday

Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

If it’s Saturday and you’re reading this, I am far away from you.

That’s because every week, I unplug and celebrate what I call the digital sabbath. I know, I know, it’s kind of blasphemous, but it is the best way to think about the activity of disconnecting from the Internet to give my brain a breather.

Many cultures have celebrated the sabbath, or a day of rest. (The etymology of the word, according to Google: Old English, from Latin sabbatum, via Greek from Hebrew šabbāṯ, from šāḇaṯ ‘to rest.’) In Judaism, it’s held on Saturday. In Christian circles, on Sunday. Buddhist rest days follow lunar cycles. Even some secular cultures have had state-mandated rest days. From ancient times, we’ve understood the importance of taking a break. (Even if it’s done for some dubious religious reason.)

Psychological studies have demonstrated that our brains need downtime. Not only to recover from the stress of the constant distractions of work and media, but to harness the brain’s ability to do creative work. That’s right, there’s evidence to suggest our brains are productive while they’re resting:

Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.

There are many ways to achieve the kind of rest required. It can be as simple as going for a walk in the woods. Meditation works wonders, as do short naps. The new hotness is something called mindfulness. All of these are difficult — if not impossible — to do when you’re being bombarded by distractions from the digital sphere. Which is pretty much everything these days.

So my solution is to disconnect from the Internet. Friends and loved ones can still reach me by phone. I’ll allow myself to read a book (yes, even on my Kindle), watch a movie or play a game on my console. So I’m not totally free of the digital sphere, but I am free of the part that will interrupt me and distract me from my mental downtime. Some Saturdays, it’s difficult. That iPhone just sits there. I know its Twitter app is only a click away. The urge is usually strongest in the morning, and by the afternoon, I’ve adjusted to not communicating online. By the evening, I’ve forgotten that I need to. Often, it will not be until late on Sunday that I remember I have social media accounts that need maintaining, emails to read.

In other words, life slips in during my absence from the Net. I have conversations. I nap. I think. My mind is free to wander without the shackles of a digital feed.

Do I think everyone needs to do this? Not really. I’m sure there are many people who can resist the siren call of their devices without unplugging completely, but I’m also sure there are more who can’t. Those are the folks who may want to consider this, or something like it.

Is this all I do? Of course not. I also exercise, meditate, and drink red wine. (Usually in that order.) I also have a memo taped to my office wall, which helps me keep on track with writing:


What practices do you follow?

Alltop never distracts me from laughing. Incredible infographic by David MccCandless at

Tweeting in two places may break my brain

And god help me if I ever get confused!


Alltop has always been as funny as twain.

The Mash-Up Mentality

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesWith derivative art invading our cultural spaces like never before, is this the start of a new artistic movement or the death of originality?

In 1951, the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said 90 per cent of everything is crap. Since then, the percentage hasn’t changed, but the volume sure has.

Digital culture serves up more derivative, unoriginal, and – let’s face it – bad art than we ever got in the old analog world. But why?

Sixty years have passed, and we’re still primates. That means we are hard-wired for acceptance and belonging to the group. Of course, being original and outstanding is hard to pull off if you’re going to run with the crowd. Call it the Thag Principle. And we don’t really outgrow it once we leave high school, where conformity is a survival issue. It gets subsumed and expressed in other ways, such as “liking” things on Facebook.

In one sense, our need for conformity runs so deep that we are not even aware of it. One of the things I loved about George Carlin was how well he could shake out our delusions of originality. He said, “People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.”

So even if we spend most of our time trading links to the latest Hitler “Downfall” video or chuckling at the latest version of the “Sad Keanu” meme, it is culture. It’s derivative culture, but evidence of a kind of originality. The kind that advertising giant Leo Burnett said “made for good ads: the secret of all effective originality in advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.”

Sense and Sensibility and Sea MonstersThe mash-up mentality has invaded all of our cultural spaces too, even the literary. When I read about Seth Grahame-Smith’s book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had two reactions. The first was, “Well, that’s derivative.” The second was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Since then, we’ve had Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I’m sure we’ll see Canadian knockoffs soon:John A. Macdonald’s Time Machine (filled with lots of Morlock fighting), and Anne of Green Gables Meets the Aliens (hey, why should the horror genre get all the fun?).

So is this the start of a new artistic movement, or the death of originality? Many will argue art has always had imitation, reinvention, and even plagiarism at its heart. Hell, T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Real originality evokes many emotions when it’s first encountered, and love is rarely one of them. Usually, it’s outrage and anger. New things scare us – the Thag part of us, which likes the predictable and reassuring. How else can you explain the proliferation ofCSI spinoffs on television?

A mash-up culture is the perfect combination of those things – something that has the frisson of newness, but is, at its heart, familiar.

Digital media has opened up the means of production so that anyone can do it. Instead of leaving them in a desk drawer, now all those frustrated novelists can publish their novels themselves. And they do. And yes, a lot of it isn’t very good. But then again, look at the stuff produced by so-called professionals. A lot of that isn’t very good either.

If you accept Sturgeon’s assertion, then 10 per cent of everything is not crap. Does that make it original? Or good?

Not necessarily. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another.” (Back to our primitive brains.) So, much of the culture we create is not original. This essay is a fine example (assuming you’ll allow that it makes the 10-per-cent cut ). I’ve quoted a science-fiction writer, a philosopher, a comedian, and a poet, and referenced numerous cultural products to make my argument.

Our only hope is the raw numbers. There are so many more people creating culture now that even if most of it is garbage, there will still be more worthwhile stuff made than at any time in history.

Of course, we may never know about it, because, hey, Thag likes his LOLCATS.

Hey, Alltop enjoys a good meme! Originally published on The Mark, February, 2011.