19th Anniversary in 2015: The State of the Internet

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As I write this, it is the 19th anniversary of the birth of my webpage.

I look back with fondness on the excitement and novelty at the dawn of the Internet circa 1996 when “early adopters” such as myself flocked to the World Wide Web to communicate and explore the artistic possibilities.

To this day I can vividly feel the chill running up my spine as I sent an email to Russia for free, knowing the recipient on the other side of the planet would receive it almost immediately. Mirabile dictu! The idea in back in 1996 that I could post my thoughts to the Web and anyone anywhere with access to the Internet could read them was revolutionary. “To get access to that many before… Do you know how much paper I would have to print out? How much effort I would have to expend to disseminate my writings?” I marveled. Only the elites in printed publications could afford to do that previously.

The Internet could hugely empower the individual, I thought.

I still think that.

The digital revolution is the most important change since the Gutenberg Press, I thought.

I still think that.

But nineteen years later I would add some caveats.

On the positive side, a thousand thousand different Internet communities have sprouted up. From grandmas who crochet to victims of child abuse to political activists to those struggling to deal with aging parents… people nowadays have almost more information at their finger tips than they know what to do with. Support and council can be only a few clicks away. Having difficulty breast feeding your baby? There is an online forum with information and support. A person can find another with similar interests and/or problems, no matter whey they might live. “Google it” has almost become a common verb for finding out some piece of needed information.

I still remember one precocious high school student who would spend his free time learning about history online. He would spend hours voraciously learning everything he could about U.S. history. He would travel from one link to another on Wikipedia and just soak it up. Previously, an intelligent young man wishing to learn would have been limited by his access to a library and books. The Internet has made the dissemination of information so much easier.

All this is so much to the positive that it hardly needs repeating.

A teacher friend of mine’s son learned how to play guitar by endlessly watching online tutorials on youtube. Maybe it would have been better and easier to have paid a guitar teacher for face-to-face instruction, but this kid very much wanted to learn guitar and did so online for free. He just watched, listened; he practiced endlessly. Then he went and watched more instructional videos. This kid did not spend a dime. I was recently told that it is much harder for tennis pros to find clients who will pay them for lessons; one could spend days watching online lessons posted by tennis pros for free.

Information used to be scarce. Now it seems to be abundant. There is more information online — most of it free — than ever before.

Information is power. More information equals more power for individuals, no?

Granted, information is not knowledge, and it is not wisdom. But information is a good first step towards knowledge and wisdom. Would you prefer to return to the past and ration information?

And then there is “social media.” With the furious rise of Facebook around 2010, it seemed like just about everyone I knew was finally online. The Facebook seemed to be the Internet, when it came to persons finally remaining in touch. College friends and old girlfriends I had searched for in vain for years online were suddenly right there, with pictures and updates at will. My former students graduated from high school and seemingly never left my presence thanks to Facebook. I could stay in touch and witness their lives progress over Facebook.

This has been wonderful for me. It is like Facebook, and other social media, democratized the Internet. It brought “regular folks” who were not hugely computer savvy online and in touch. It made a huge difference in my life. I have not been hugely moved to communicate much on Facebook, but I have watched and listened. It has brought family and old friends closer to me.

However, the virtues of social media are interwoven with its vices. The average American has so much potential to speak and be heard, and how do most of us use the Internet? To exchange persiflage and cheesy cat videos on Youtube? It is my experience that the potential for powerful and insightful communication is mostly squandered on social media. The medium seems to promote superficial postings of extreme brevity; it is a whole lot of noise signifying mostly nothing. Thoreau complained that the mid-19th post office propagated letters that communicated very little of real value. I wonder what he would think of email and Twitter.

Everyone one sees Americans walking around with their noses close to their cell phones, oblivious to the world around them. Even with their family members or on dates, they are in their private sphere online. Facebook. Twitter. Snap Chat. Yik Yak. Kik. What’sApp. Texting. They are part of the hive mind. They are only partly in the world with the people sitting next to them.

I read a Tweet recently from an award winning journalist. Someone has asked him how to enjoy similar professional success. “Put down your smartphone. Read one new book every week,” was his tart advice. Well said!

Are we Americans making good use of our technology? That is a good question. And a complicated one.

Is social media, in particular, largely a rabbit hole where one’s time goes to die? It is a black hole of attention full of petty gossip and a pop culture of rap stars and movie actors? Does the urge to be “connected” and to fight solitude and boredom with our smartphones mean that we squander our free moments with trivial news and superficial communications?

Are digital communications merely a series of petty distraction that combine to take away from more important reflections that one could enjoy by oneself?

Obviously, the answer would seem to be both “yes” and “no,” depending upon the person. It would depend on how one chooses to use the technology.

And then there are the dark aspects of digital life: ISIS uses social media to recruit impressionable young Muslims to travel to Iraq and Syria and to fight for the caliphate and behead apostates (hard as that choice is for me to understand), child molesters find each other and trade photos, the embittered engage in the execrable practice of “revenge porn,” and troubled losers shoot up schools in an attempt to gain Internet infamy (“I would rather be an infamous villain than an invisible nobody!”).

Those are merely the most negative corners of the Internet. But would such persons exist and act the same way if the Internet had never been created? Hard to say. “Yes” and “no”?

And then there is advertising everywhere on the Internet, as business tries to take your money, just like in the real world. And then there are the usual famous actors and singer/celebrities of our meretricious popular culture. Yuck. (I was sort of hoping to flee all that by going online in 1996.)

So the online world is a disparate mix of the good and the bad, just like the world offline is.

Perhaps it is that as the larger culture over the past two decades has migrated online, they have made it more representative of the larger world. The Internet in 2015 is clearly more mainstream than it was in 1995 when the “early adopters” mostly populated it.

But, as Marshall McLuhan, stated, the “medium is the message.” And the ubiquity of Internet access, and especially with smartphones that one carries in one’s pocket, that the trend seems to have accelerated. The Apple iPhone 6 in my pocket currently has many more times the computing power and speed than did the desktop computer I started my webpage with in 1996. I now have access to the Internet everywhere I go through cell phone towers, and the offerings online are so many times more varied and useful than twenty years ago. And the phone travels with me everywhere at all times. Pretty soon they will be implanting them in our skin. Author Sherry Turkle has said that “our phones are not accessories, but psychologically potent devices that change not just what we do but who we are.”

I read that sentence last month in the article “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” by Ms. Turkle in the New York Times. It would seem many nowadays feel as if they are being controlled by technology, not controlling it. We have become “tools of our tools,” as Thoreau would have described. The technology, with its very omnipresence, has changed how we live. And not for the better, in Ms. Turkle’s considered opinion. Technology has gotten in the way of human communication, not enhanced it. She does not call for the abolition of digital devices but wisely counsels that we use them in moderation and with more intention.

This, it seems to me, is sage advice.

Novelist Jonathan Frazen, in his New York Times review of Turkle’s book “Reclaiming Conversation”, puts her argument thusly:

“Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”

So let me learn myself to use rational thought and then considered action to “put technology in its place.”

Let me then in my own life, and serving as a role model and leader to my own family, learn to use technology to serve important human needs, not distracting me and my family from them.

Easy to say. Perhaps not so easy to do.