Why blogging about how the Internet is ruining our society is massively problematic
I am a college educator, and so I’m used to dealing with problematic assumptions. That I also teach (and do) web design and use web technologies as a means of promoting social justice, only compounds the kinds of assumptions I encounter.
“The Internet is destroying our society,” some students invariably try to convince me every semester. “Everyone’s getting addicted to using computers,” a colleague warns. “Google is making us stupid,” Nicholas Carr, a writer for The Atlantic has most famously quipped. The argument goes something like this (from Carr’s article):
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
So, let me get this straight: because our society is now different, largely due to the increasing use of communication technologies, and because you feel differently about information, and specifically about how your mind is processing said information, bad things are happening everywhere. Does that about cover it? Never mind that there is little to no scientific evidence that “Internet addiction” actually exists. Never mind that a recent study shows that Americans, who spend more time surfing the Internet than any other population in the world, spend, on average, a WHOPPING 28 hours per month. The digital sky is clearly falling and we are helpless to avoid it.
I get it. Believe me; I do: change is scary. Believe it or not (my students certainly don’t), I wasn’t always a “techie.” I was actually raised in a working class family that lived in a rural area, so I didn’t have much access to computer technology growing up. After my parents divorced, I had almost no access to the Internet clear through my formative teenage years. I’m a “digital immigrant,” then, a convert: I adopted the use of digital technologies to solve problems I was encountering, problems as a teacher, as a communicator, and as a citizen.
So, I am a good test subject of this mythology. Has my life gotten worse, because of technology? Am I dumber, more socially inept, and less effective as a person because of technology? Am I addicted to using these technologies, meaning (as is the definition of addiction), that if I don’t use them I go through withdrawal symptoms? The answer to the former questions is: I certainly don’t think so. And no: I have never experienced withdrawal symptoms from not using the Internet (nor do I know anyone who has).
Another, more important, question we should all be asking ourselves is: who is the agent here? If you look at all the statements I started this post with, they all put technology itself in the control seat. People aren’t using Google ineffectively, Google is making us dumber. Our society isn’t using the Internet like it has used every tool since “society” existed, for both good and for ill, technology is using society for its own nefarious ends.
Well, as anyone who knows how the technologies that make up the Internet actually work, I am here to tell you: they are not sentient. Not yet, anyway. And if they ever become so, I will be the first one to decry their use of us, if that use is truly for ill. In the meantime: if something is happening to our society, it is because human beings are doing it. Human being are the designers and users of the Internet. Human beings create computer viruses, which are arguably the closest thing to life on the Internet. Human beings hack the accounts of other human beings, and steal the digital identities of other human beings.
Human beings also generate millions of dollars in charitable donations every year via these same technologies. They use these technologies to connect with each other across the planet. They share stories, design art, make new technologies, and even, yes: educate themselves and others via these same technologies.
The Internet is a tool for being human, not the other way around. And it can be shaped any way we like. And so, as much as I welcome (as anyone committed to democracy must) the nay-sayers who will continue to post about how destructive this virtual space is that we are all co-creating, I must point out: if you really think the Internet is so terrible, why do you continue to use it? Shouldn’t you be bombarding the rest of us with these messages of doom via telegraph, or perhaps carrier pigeon? Just something to think about ;-).
A nice sentiment indeed, but probably not Benjamin Franklin’s. May be based on this quote by Noam Chomsky: “It is the fundamental duty of the citizen to resist and to restrain the violence of the state. Those who choose to disregard this responsibility can justly be accused of complicity in war crimes, which is itself designated as ‘a crime under international law’ in the principles of the Charter of Nuremberg.”
A team of Canadian researchers have uncovered an unusual new example of “upstream filtering,” where online content in one country is blocked in another country due to filtering that happens in transit.
Researchers at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, revealed that some Oman Internet users using the Omantel ISP are also being subjected to Indian content restrictions because of traffic flowing through India.