Internet Society And Its Future

A controversial American mathematician once said that technology is always beneficial in the short-term but ultimately harmful in the long-term.  For all the incredible and immediate benefits that we get from Facebook, Twitter, and the internet in general, over the long haul it’s of questionable benefit. 

I should point out that the controversial mathematician’s name is Ted Kaczynski, though you probably know him as the Unabomber.  If you don’t know who the Unabomber is, he was a highly intelligent college professor and mathematician who decided to leave society and live in a cabin in Montana.  While living in this cabin, he mailed bombs to universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring twenty-three.  Eventually, he said that he would stop sending bombs if his manifesto, called Industrial Society and Its Future, was published in the New York Times and Washington Post.  Obviously, this guy is a deranged lunatic whose actions were completely unnecessary and unjustified.  His manifesto is a rambling, borderline fascist document that points out a lot of problems without giving much in the way of solutions.  However, his larger point about effects of technology on people is surprisingly accurate.

Remember in Hot Fuzz how Danny (the fatter guy) was always telling Simon Pegg’s workaholic character that he didn’t know how to “switch off?”  The same thing happens with the internet.  People are finding it increasingly hard to separate their online life from their real life.  With Blackberries and other mobile internet carriers becoming more accessible, the gap between being online and offline is decreasing. 

In and of itself, I guess this isn’t the most horrible thing in the world.  But being constantly plugged into a machine, I would argue, has a negative effect on our relationships with others.  Think about the last time you hung out with a large group of people.  At some point, I’m sure there were multiple people within that group that spent a good amount of time checking their phone, sending emails, looking stuff up etc.  A common sight in restaurants or whatever is seeing people sitting down at a table not talking, each person checking their cell phone. 

The benefits of the internet are clear.  It instantaneously connects us with people from all over the place, gives us access to unlimited information, yada yada yada.  What it takes away is a lot harder to quantify.  I don’t know what you’d call it exactly.  Freedom, I guess, or the ability to think for yourself.  It’s very difficult today to even know what your own thoughts are.  Even as I’m writing this, I don’t really know if it’s my own idea or just something I’ve heard and am now recycling.

How is this any different from previous generations, you might ask.  First, the sheer amount of information we have available is way more than was even possible 20 or 30 years ago.  For example, let’s say you were planning a surprise birthday party in, I don’t know, 1955.  Your prior knowledge of this type of party is probably limited.  In fact, it’s likely that you’re working from a completely blank canvas, which means that you are creating your own perception of what a surprise birthday party is.  Obviously, that perception is not entirely your own; you’ve probably asked friends or family to help in the planning.  But, for all intents and purposes, you and the people you’re working with have created this thing.

Now imagine yourself planning a surprise birthday party in 2010.  Not only do you have multiple clichéd sitcom situations to work off of, you’ll probably consult the internet for tips on the best ways to plan the surprise, good excuses to throw the person off the trail, and so on.  And ultimately the 2010 birthday party will probably be a hell of a lot more fun than the one from 1950.  But again, it shows how technology is helpful in the short-term (a better birthday party created using the internet and TV shows) but harmful in the long term in that you just recycled archetypes that you think should make up a surprise birthday party.

Here’s another example.  I’ve filled out a lot of online applications for teaching jobs in the last few weeks.  A lot of them feature this question: “What are the attributes or qualities of an outstanding teacher?”  In the pre-internet age, the person answering this question would probably rack his brain to come up with the best sounding answer and then throw it down on the paper.  Sure, he could ask a few friends, but in all likely his answer is coming out of his own head. 

Today, a simple Google search of that question results in a ready-made answer that can be copied and pasted right on the form.  Rearrange a few phrases and throw in an anecdote or two, and you’re looking at an ostensibly well-written and informed answer, all without even comprehending the question.  Again, technology helps out in the short-term, as a less than ethical method is validated by the creation of a professional sounding answer, but more negative in the long run, as creativity further erodes.

So then what’s the solution to all this?  Well, Ted Kaczynski’s response was to move to an isolated cabin in Montana, grow a beard, write a 35,000 page manifesto on a typewriter, and mail bombs to university professors.  Which is, you know, not a reasonable way to behave.  Drug users would advocate using mushrooms and other mind-altering drugs, which supposedly free your mind, but that seems unreasonable as well.  Anarchists and such want to completely overhaul the system, but that will never happen either.  And I wouldn’t want it to.  I like the internet, even though I recognize the negative aspects.  I guess I’m a part of the machine too.


~ by fc13 on April 3, 2010.

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