On a recent visit to the college I attended as an undergraduate, I bumped into a senior porter who had worked there most of his life. We were enjoying a friendly chat, just as we used to, when he surprised me by remarking that the current students are less sociable than my generation was: “they’re always on the internet these days.” I questioned whether this could really make a tangible difference to college life, but he was adamant: “the common room is quieter now, and the students don’t talk to the staff much.” “The bar is busier than ever though”, he added.
What an oddly sinister state of affairs, I thought: in the daytime the students hide away and plug themselves into a long-distance communication machine that strips their interactions of physicality and practical utility; then in the evening they compensate for these deficits by consuming a powerful psychogenic drug to make their encounters with local strangers more satisfying.
If this were a scenario described in a science fiction book we’d all wince. Yet it’s not science fiction: it’s common fact. In many walks of life, face-to-face friendliness is quietly giving way to the face-to-screen functionality of internet-mediated information exchange
Now, I’m no Luddite. Quite the contrary. I have a practical mindset, which obliges me wherever possible to consider costs and benefits. In the case of the internet, we’re all familiar with its benefits – the most obvious and general being its incredible speed in information recovery and transfer. But what about the costs of the internet? These arguably include:
Undermining communities by reducing the amount of time people spend together in real interactions; filling our lives with more marketing than ever; forcing businesses to advertise more than is good for them; stifling entrepreneurs, who must now create a presence online as well as offline; making it harder for artists, musicians and authors to profit from their work; encouraging people to read more distractedly and less deeply; fostering banality and superficiality; cultivating narcissism; raising levels of gambling; tempting people to choose computer games rather than real activities; causing addiction in users; exposing people (including children) to sensitive content; inundating people with emails, most of which are irrelevant; subjecting millions of non-experts every day to the stresses of fiddling around with faulty computers or unresponsive programs; consolidating huge power in the hands of a few companies; making politicians more soundbyte-obsessed than ever; requiring vast investments in order to build, maintain, update and replace technologies and websites; consuming enormous amounts of energy; requiring a relentless and pervasive human effort to keep the whole system operational.
I’ve created a facebook group – a sort of ‘anti-facebook group’, if you like – to provide a forum for identifying and discussing such potential hidden costs. I hope that, in the process, the group will provide the encouragement people need to get offline and get on with their lives; hence, I’ve given it the name ‘Internet dead end’. There used to be a TV programme called Why Don’t You?, which challenged kids to “switch off the television and do something less boring instead”. Viewers wrote in to suggest fun and sociable activities that don’t involve TV – playing games, making things, learning tricks, going on trips, that sort of thing. I hope my new facebook group will provide a similar antidote to the internet.
Is it hypocritical to use the internet to criticize the internet? Not in the slightest. If people are shouting too loud, you’ve got to shout more loudly to silence them; if people are standing up in a football crowd, you’ve got to stand over them to usher them back into their seats. Sometimes you have to join them in order to beat them, and so using a medium to criticize that medium is a perfectly legitimate approach. Sometimes, indeed, the hand that feeds you is also holding you captive.
Ben Irvine is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, volume 1 is for sale at The School of Life shop