Over the last few years the Internet has become an integral part of the lives of a majority of people in the United States. Important to that sentence is integral: while the Internet became a central engine to business well over a decade ago, for huge groups of people – children and adolescents, retirees, houseparents – it is only through the rise of mainstream social networking that we have truly become what could be termed a full-time computing nation.
The Internet is unique in its ability to connect people to information, things and each other, enabling it to evolve from an ivory tower research project into the greatest technological force since the atomic bomb. Just as the atomic bomb marked an end to a tradition of armed conflict going back thousands of years that culminated in World War 2 – reducing the ultimate struggle of powers from the armed struggle of many men into the potential push of the proverbial button – so has the Internet functionally transformed expectations around information access, interpersonal communication, and the need for physical presence or proximity. That impact is largely built on a collapsing of time and distance: researching a report or sending a letter now take minutes or hours instead of days or weeks; interacting with a colleague across the globe in real-time now takes a few seconds of clicking as opposed to days or weeks of planning and purchasing-related activities. Indeed, as new forms of “push” communication—video chat or instant messaging where people are able to reach out to you at their convenience—the old metaphors or writing letters, reading books, and walking to the store have been obliterated. The Internet has replaced them all.
Consistent with the speed of the medium, people are using the Internet in an ever-faster way. Email, perhaps the most important early Internet technology, is increasingly becoming passe. Writing and reading lengthy, thoughtful “letters” that are constructed with good grammar is now the exception. “how r u?” is the new salutation in most cases. While I cannot imagine my mother asking me “how r u?”, as a father I have in fact texted exactly that to my son. What a world, what a world.
The oft-clumsy informality of the Internet is stretching into the usage patterns of most people in most online contexts. The popular games and applications on Facebook, current king of the online social networks, are all about speed. Mafia Wars or FarmVille (or, indeed, the dominant wave of first-person shooter video games) require little thought: you hop in, you act fast, and you’re out. In the online social networking world, of course, this also results in dozens of others—close and not-so-close friends and family—being spammed, er, I mean, updated on your progress.
Increasingly, the reward for our online work and play seems to be suspiciously narcotic-like, both in our feeling an actual need for it, as well as in the limited and diminishing duration of our satisfaction. We get one hit, and then seek another, and another. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a very real thing. According to the Computer Addiction Study Center at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital, “between 5% and 10% of Web surfers some form of Web dependency.” There is disagreement in the professional community as to how to assess and treat the issue: however, whether IAD is a compulsion or an addiction, its impact is widespread: working with ABCNews.com, the Center for Internet Behavior concluded that about 6% of people are experiencing “significant impact” in their lives. 6%! Globally that is hundreds of millions of people! In the USA alone, that represents almost 20 million people! And, the numbers within my community—people for whom Internet access is constant and assumed—are even higher. According to netaddiction.com, people who are impacted by IAD “suffer from emotional problems such as depression and anxiety-related disorders and often use the fantasy world of the Internet to psychologically escape unpleasant feelings or stressful situations.”
My concern, however, isn’t about Internet addiction per se. Instead, I want to focus on what I see as a clear byproduct of IAD: the degree to which we turn off our brains and become increasingly passive, disengaged, and numb when we are online. I’ve observed this in myself and others. There are evenings where I’ve been “on the Internet” all night and, when I’m done, would struggle to answer a quiz covering what I was doing, let alone what benefit I received from it. The time is just lost, gone as I compulsively click-click-click. My brain is switched off, and I am left feeling like my time and life are wasted.
I am deeply troubled, for example, by the recent direction being taken in American politics: the political middle is being squeezed out as two increasingly polarized political parties boil down to rhetoric and entrenched, narrow positions. Politicians, like the previously anonymous Joe Wilson, are rewarded with celebrity status for not having decorum and behaving inappropriately. This is a product of many more complicated facets of media and society, but certainly part of that gravity well is the shrinking attention spans of the citizenry, more moved by bombastic and audacious headlines than any real substance.
It seems that we are no longer interested in content and substance, instead mollified – and even attracted to and demanding – the outrageous headlines. We are quite content to remain ignorant of any underlying complexity. As writing is compressed to short strings of single letters, as games are increasingly structured to maximize dopamine levels, as we now carry on “conversations” with four people at a time without truly engaging with any one of them, are we losing our capacity, much less will, to contribute as informed citizenry? As the so-called “news sites” push out a nauseous mélange of news-mixed-with-celebrity-mixed-with-oddity-mixed-with-advertising, it is becoming more difficult to even identify what really matters, much less consider and act upon it.
Far be it for me to invoke the decline of the Roman Empire or, a more recent moment in time, depression-era Germany. But as we look ever deeper into the future emerging in front of us, full of wonderful machines and accelerating technology, I am increasingly disturbed. Instead of the promised utopia are we instead hurtling, with ever increasing speed, towards the darker dystopia of disconnection, isolation and an uninformed citizenry? The challenge to find a middle path—a way to leverage and capitalize upon the technology while not diminishing the human – seems among the most pertinent social and technological challenges of the decade to come.