Why You need an Internet

Two years ago, Kenneth Goldsmith, the University of Pennsylvania poet and conceptual artist, taught a creative writing course he called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Students would do just that, probing the tedium of the internet. But thanks to in-class use of social media, the class also became a creative ferment of improvised dance, trust experiments and inquiries into the modern nature of the self and the crowd.

The constant experimentation changed Mr. Goldsmith into a self-described “radical optimist” about the internet, too. While many of his peers worry about the effects that endless tweets and bad videos have on our minds and souls, he sees a positive new culture being built. The first poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art, appointed in 2013, he believes we are headed into a creative renaissance, one with unprecedented speed and inclusion.

Meanwhile, the class has evolved into a seminar on collective “time wasting” that Mr. Goldsmith has held in several countries, and it returns to Penn this fall. His new book, named after the course, will be available this month.

Why write this book?

I had cognitive dissonance. Theorists say the internet is making us dumber, but something magical happened when my students wasted time together. They became more creative with each other. They say we’re less social; I think people on the web are being social all the time. They say we’re not reading; I think we’re reading all the time, just online.

I’m an artist, and artists feel things, we distrust these studies. As a poet I wanted to observe, I wanted to feel things.

You compare online experiences with 20th-century philosophies and artistic movements.

The DNA of the web is embedded in 20th-century movements like Surrealism, where artists sought to live in a state like dreaming, or Pop Art, where they leveraged popular culture to make bigger points about society. Postmodernism is about sampling things and remixing them, and that is made real in this digital world.

When I teach my students about the historical preconditions for what they are doing when they waste time together — things like Surrealism or Cubism — the theoretical framework helps them know that the web isn’t a break, it’s a continuity with earlier great thinking.

But if we’re just remixing, are we creating?

When a D.J. brings a laptop full of music samples to a club he doesn’t play an instrument, but we don’t argue that he isn’t doing something creative in mixing those sounds to create his own effect. In the online world the only thing you’re the master of is your collection, your archive, and how you use it, how you remix it. We become digital archivists, collecting and cataloging things. I find it exciting.

What will an educated person be in the future?

We still read great books, and there is a place for great universities. But an educated person in the future will be a curious person who collects better artifacts. The ability to call up and use facts is the new education. How to tap them, how to use them.

If we change as a culture, do we change ourselves?

I’ve got a 10-year-old and 17-year-old. They’re thinking differently from me. They stay connected all the time, and they’re smart, they play baseball, they read, they spend time online. They’re not robots. Basic human qualities haven’t changed. I can find Plato in online life. When I read Samuel Pepys’s diary I see Facebook posts. We just find new ways to express things.