How we spend our down time—whether watching films on Netflix or toying with Photoshop—has been completely reshaped by the Internet. 

 

The idea of free time has been losing its meaning in the Internet era. We end up idling with the same computers we once used to be productive and make money, and the convergence has made it increasingly difficult to be genuinely non-productive.

A new study from the Technology Policy Institute helps highlight this phenomenon with a wealth of new statistics about what people with Internet do with their free time. The report finds that among those who use the Internet for leisure, the average daily person spent 100 minutes relaxing online, about a third of the five hours of free time most people have. The more leisure time spent online, the less time subjects spent socializing offline, dropping from about 41 minutes in 2003 to 37 minutes in 2011.

As our leisure time becomes less physically social, it becomes more focused on seeking and discovering, driven by an ironic sense of absence. It’s the nature of the Internet to confuse questions and erase the original intent one had in opening a browser window within three or four clicks. The feeling of being enmeshed in an aura of perpetually unfulfilled possibility emanating from one’s laptop screen is quickly becoming one of the hallmarks of our time and place, chasing after random story threads and trivial curiosities that wipe one’s memory clean for a few minutes or hours. 

 

Watching television and reading a few magazines a month were certainly commodified forms of leisure, but the Internet has multiplied these forms, turned them interactive, and charged them with an increasing pace that is both impossible to fully absorb, and yet painful to step away from for fear of missing out on something that cannot be genuinely experienced in retrospect.

 

Even in opening mostly passive experiences of Hulu or Netflix, one scrolls through a thicket of distracting squares carrying the potential to derail or distract one’s original purpose for logging on. Leisure time on the Internet is less about pursuing a singular interest than allowing it to be flooded by other, unrelated interests, a way of dosing your brain’s propensity to ask why by letting it binge on an infinite stream of questions and the digital puzzle pieces that can be assembled into something approximating an answer.

Observations like this are often pushed into binary conflicts about whether the older way of doing things was any better. I grew up as part of the last generation without regular access to the Internet and am certain the hours I spent marooned on the couch staring at network television trying to carve some interesting thoughts out of Friends or Ricki Lake were not better than being online. But I’d hesitate to argue our present moment is innately better either.

Each generation shapes their own limits in different ways, making different social and cultural structures to attend to them. And the kinds of things we want to make for ourselves depend on the tidal sways of politics, economy, and the temporary ideological infatuations they can bring.

Perpetual productivity has become the ethos of the Internet, and so it’s natural for that value to find a place for itself in our downtime. By many counts, Americans seem to have more leisure time today, with between four to eight extra hours of free time each week. Mysteriously, Americans are sleeping less, averaging just 6.7 hours a night compared to some estimates of 12 hours a hundred years ago. We have never been freer, and yet the price of this luxurious capacity for relaxation is obsessive attention to an stream of content that can destroy our sense of time and purpose, until suddenly its 3 a.m. and you’re watching homemade documentaries about brain eating amoebas on YouTube while carrying on five Twitter conversations and reblogging pictures of Indonesian monkeys in porcelain baby masks to your Tumblr with creepy slogans added.

It’s perverse to think of moments like these as leisurely, or even free. They seem more like the product of an infinite restlessness, like a dog that has become stuck in the motion of circling the spot its chosen to sleep in for the night without ever being able to lie down. This is largely attributable to the increasing number of leisure activities that can be broken down into profitable commodities for the companies that provide them. Watching television and reading a few magazines a month were certainly commodified forms of leisure, but the Internet has multiplied these forms, turned them interactive, and charged them with an increasing pace that is both impossible to fully absorb, and yet painful to step away from for fear of missing out on something that cannot be genuinely experienced in retrospect.

 And an increasingly large percentage of the content in these channels is an abstract form of productivity that has wormed its way into our leisure, making the labor of an hour in Photoshop seem like fun because it might produce a funny picture, an act that is outwardly indistinguishable from an hour spent working in Photoshop to build a client proposal for an ad campaign for a new kind of dish soap. It’s you at the mouse and keyboard, headphones on, fingers moving in sporadic gestures, face unexpressive, with no other human voices around to interrupt your attention.

These points of overlap where work and relaxation seem to become dopplegangers are not just signs of an increasing leisure culture, but affects of a society that has made work so pervasive it sometimes feels impossible to tell when one is and isn’t working. Even when we’re not working our brains are looking for ways that we could be, in which light the Internet is what we have built for ourselves to drain that need. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.