Is The Internet Good For Us?
This simple question has a Luddite feel to it. How could the most life-changing invention since the light bulb not be good for us? What retrograde codger could possibly question the superiority of a world with information at our fingertips?
The Internet boosted human productivity, enhanced communication, created tens of millions of jobs, and ended archaic practices like snail mail, physical maps, and card catalogs. Who would go back to the era when old news arrived on your doorstep in the form of paper – and at a price too? Who would choose a life where baby pictures are not available to faraway family and friends for weeks? Who could stand paying bills by writing paper checks and mailing them in envelopes?
Yes, the Internet offers conveniences, but does it make life better? It may be hard to believe, but there is a case against the Internet.
Costs of Addiction
Alcoholics often describe their drinking as a beneficial component of their lives, or something they “need”. To the rest of us, these are clearly rationalizations, propped up against all evidence to protect the alcoholic from the terrifying realization that they must either stop drinking or destroy themselves.
Non-alcoholics sometimes marvel at how alcoholics cannot see the damage they’re doing. How can they lose so many hours each day to their addiction, and not recognize the waste? Can’t they see their work suffering? How do they not regret the thousands of dollars spent on booze? How can they not recognize the effects on their relationships, their personalities, and their minds?
Well, guess what? We all show signs of addiction.
Most of us waste hours of each day on social media. Most sneak Internet time into work hours. Most of us spend thousands of dollars per year on the combination of high speed Internet and mobile data plans – oftentimes more than we save for retirement. Meanwhile, there you are staring into your smartphone at the dinner table, while your kids are trying to get your attention, or while your significant other tried and failed to make eye contact.
Go ahead. Tell all your rationalizations for these things.
But then describe how the loss of time, productivity, money, and presence in our relationships makes our Internet addiction not an addiction.
A Microsoft marketing study based on electroencephalography made headlines a couple years ago. It found the average Canadian’s attention span dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to 8.25 seconds in 2015, lower than a goldfish’s attention span.
There’s plenty to criticize here, but if Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and brain-training games can exercise and improve specific brain capabilities, if one’s early childhood environment correlates with IQ, and if social integration reduces memory loss in elderly people, then it’s not a leap to say our brains adapt to better perform the tasks we spend time doing. To paraphrase, your brain gets better at things it practices.
What are we practicing when we peruse Pinterest , Snapchat, or Instagram? What mental muscle are we building sharing memes and arguing on Facebook or Twitter? The obvious answers are thumb-eye coordination, rapid visual scanning, ignoring ads, and so on. It’s certainly a stimulating experience, but are these skills helpful or harmful in our real lives?
One common Internet behavioral pattern is the online disinhibition effect. People are semi-anonymous on the Internet, and more likely to say things they would never say face-to-face.
Thus, socially awkward teens who cannot make eye contact in real life can become vicious trolls and online bullies to victims who share more information about their vulnerabilities than they would in person.
Disinhibition sounds like fun, but self-control is how one sticks to a budget, continues a exercise program, gets homework done, maintains a relationship, keeps a job, reads a book, or accomplishes much of anything in life. What are the consequences when entire generations shift the activities they practice from those requiring self-control to those that elicit disinhibition?
Perhaps being a disinhibited social media user is like being drunk at a party full of drunken people. It sounds like a great time, until the along comes the inevitable drama, loud people, crying people, arguments, fistfights, and vomit. Yet, at some point in our lives, many of us thought drunken parties should be the best time ever!
Similarly, we’re drawn back into social media, even though plenty of research shows it makes people less happy, and quitting makes people happier. A University of Pittsburgh study even found the frequency and duration of social media usage were correlated with indicators of depression. Would you take a pill with these side effects?
More Info Isn’t Always Better
The Internet’s negative effects extend beyond the self.
We tend to create echo chambers for ourselves, by favoring sites that confirm our worldviews, and by “un-friending” people who disagree with our politics. This leads to group polarization, and at a nationwide scale, increasingly intense political partisanship.
Journalism is hard, so the “news” fed to you by social media algorithms is often fiction. In another era, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather attempted to balance a stream of information gathered by professional field reporters. Now, instead of corporations competing to produce more accurate information, we have fake news sites competing to target unquestioning echo chambers with sensational headlines.
Is this a better world?
If It’s A Trap, Should I Escape?
The cost of information has fallen to nearly nothing, so it’s interesting that people haven’t become pickier about the quality of what they consume. In the era of President Trump, it might not be surprising to see a backlash either toward information quality or a low-information diet. If that backlash happens, freethinkers should consider that the critics of the internet might not all be Luddites. They might be onto something.