The internet has changed the world. Now let's turn off
Twitter can help bring down Middle Eastern dictators -- but being forever online disrupts our lives for the worse.
Who among the first evangelists of the internet foresaw this? When they gushingly described the still emerging technology as “transformational”, it was surely the media or information, rather than political, landscapes they had in mind. And yet now it is the hard ground of the Middle East, not just our reading habits or entertainment options, that is changing before our eyes—thanks, at least in part, to the internet.
Take the Tunisia uprising that started it all. Those close to it insist a crucial factor was not so much the WikiLeaks revelations of presidential corruption that I mentioned here last week, but Facebook. It was on Facebook that the now legendary Boazizi video—showing a vegetable seller burning himself to death—was posted, and on Facebook that subsequent demonstrations were organised. Who knows, if the people of Tunis one day build a Freedom Square, perhaps they’ll make room for a statue of Mark Zuckerberg. If that sounds fanciful, note the Egyptian newborns named simply “Facebook”. (Not that we should get carried away with the notion of internet as liberator: dictators have found it useful, too.)
But what about the rest of us, those unlikely ever to go online to organise an insurrection? What has been the transformative effect on us? Or to borrow the title of the latest of many books chewing on this question, how is the internet changing the way you think?
Given the subject I thought it wise to engage in a little light crowd-sourcing, floating that question on Twitter. As if to vindicate the “wisdom of crowds” thesis often pressed by internet cheerleaders, the range of responses mirrored precisely the arguments raised in the expert essays collected by editor John Brockman in the new book.
There are the idealists, grateful for a tool that has enabled them to think globally. They are now plugged into a range of sources, access to which would once have required effort, expense and long delays. It’s not just faraway information that is within reach, but faraway people - activists are able to connect with like-minded allies on the other side of the world. As Newsnight‘s Paul Mason noted recently: “During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.”
It’s this possibility of cross-border collaboration that has the internet gurus excited, as they marvel at open-source efforts such as the Linux computer operating system, with knowledge traded freely across the globe. Richard Dawkins even imagines a future when such cooperation is so immediate, so reflexive, that our combined intelligence comes to resemble a single nervous system: “A human society would effectively become one individual,” he writes.
No less hopeful are the egalitarians who believe the internet, and social media in particular, have flattened the old hierarchies that put purveyors of information at the top of the pyramid and consumers down below. “I think that social boundaries have become more porous,” mused one tweeter. “Without it I wouldn’t be able to have this informal chat with you.” The end of deference is a theme, with several suggesting that where once they had to believe what they were told, they can now check for themselves.
‘I think less and google more’
But in my unscientific survey the Pollyannas were outnumbered by the Cassandras, even among people whose Twitter habit might suggest internet zeal. There were laments for what more than one essayist in the anthology calls the “outsourcing of the mind”. As a respondent to my Twitter appeal put it: “Sadly I think less and google more.”
Others raised the now hoary question of anonymity and its tendency to remove the usual social inhibitions that encourage courtesy. Just as the car windscreen makes people ruder than they would ever dare to be exposed as mere pedestrians, so the presence of a computer screen can release a darker side, coarsening relations between strangers. For reasons not yet fully understood, the internet seems to have robbed many of embarrassment.
But these were mere side notes. The biggest complaint, in both my Twitter sample and the expert essays, was about the quality of thinking in the online era. What the internet has done, say the dissenters, is damage our ability to concentrate for sustained periods. Being connected meant being constantly tempted to look away, to hop from the text in front of you to another, newer one. One tweeter replied that he now thought “about more things for shorter amounts of time. It’s like ADHD.” Anyone who has Tweetdeck fitted on their desktop, chirruping like a toddler tapping you on the shoulder urging you to come and play, will know what he means.
This, the worriers fear, is not just irritating; it might even damage our civilisation. How capable will people be of creating great works if they are constantly interrupted, even when alone? “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” angsts Nicholas Carr, who believes the internet is steering us toward “the shallows”.
The internet ‘actively stops me thinking’
Now there are even devices available that limit internet access to prevent you getting too distracted. The writer Jay Rayner responded to my poll by confessing he’d recently rented a house with no connection to get some work done, adding that the internet “actively stops me thinking”. And he’s not the only one to have taken such drastic action.
But it goes beyond mere distraction. The nature of the work itself changes. One tweeter complained of the internet producing “Pot Noodle knowledge”, instant and thin. The online bias toward the immediate is strong, forcing us into a permanent “now”, weakening our sensitivity to the past and even to the future. If John F Kennedy urged us to have two separate in-trays on our desks—one marked “urgent” and the other “important”—the internet is blurring the distinction.
The impact of all this is not confined to the quality of intellectual inquiry. It’s affecting family life, too. I recall the friend who saw a counsellor for advice about his disruptive children. Diagnosis: they were playing up to wrest attention from parents who had one eye forever on the BlackBerry. Some couples report tension, with one constantly tweeting while watching television or even during dinner. That’s not so much a third person in the marriage as an entire crowd.
The result, says essayist Douglas Rushkoff, is that the internet has made him “resentful and short-fused”, stressed by the pressure to be available and to respond now. “It’s as if the relentless demand of networks for me to be everywhere, all the time, were denying me access to the moment in which I am really living,” he writes plaintively.
But he has a valuable insight. It’s not the internet itself that’s doing this. It’s the advent particularly of mobile technology, of the smartphone, turning the internet from an occasional, “opt-in” activity to what Rushkoff calls an “‘always on’ condition of my life”. The internet is no longer just on your desk, but in your pocket, nagging you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention.
We cannot turn back time. Nor, given the internet’s power for good currently on display around the Middle East, should we want to. But we need to reassert control. We need, in short, to rediscover the off switch. - guardian.co.uk