Two Sides of the Internet

PolarityIs the Internet revolutionary, or devolutionary? Is it the mind-expanding equivalent of a library on steroids, or is it robbing us of the ability to think, just because so much is so readily available, and instantly retrievable? And why are we using it as a global repository—a place to keep our memories, our facts, and our friends—when the whole thing could just stop working tomorrow?

"We are in the midst of a social change," writes Steve Yelvington, "so vast it is beyond our comprehension. And we are deeply addicted." Apparently, the Yelvington family recently lost their Internet access due to lightning, which didn't thrill the kids. It also contributed to a bit of soul-searching on Steve's part, exacerbated, I suppose, by an article he read in a British newspaper. In this particular blog post at least, he doesn't seem entirely thrilled with some aspects of the Net.

The Internet has become central to our consciousness. We no longer have to know facts, just how to Google or Wikipedia them. Our friends and relatives and photographs and memories are all there. The Internet has become an extension of our minds, and we take it for granted, until it suddenly disappears.

Taking into account the feelings of pessimism that result from having one's modem and router toasted by lightning, and subtracting the understandable pain a father feels at seeing his kids in the throes of Net withdrawal, I'm sure his ordinary level of loathing is lower than it might appear from his words here. Still, he has a good point: we do take the thing for granted, and if it suddenly disappears, we're all in serious trouble. I don’t mean the loss of online games, chat rooms, and social networks; it's the power grid, the financial networks, and in general, the global communications that really worry me. Robust as it is, the Internet—or at least our access to it—can most definitely disappear in an instant.

But worst-case contingency communication aside, what are the options? Unless you're a sworn Luddite, the idea of completely opting out of the Internet doesn’t seem realistic. I know a few people who live without Internet access, but they're very, very old, generally ambivalent, or simply have no desire to be that connected, thank you. Much as I love books and the simple pleasure of pen on paper, the idea of abandoning the global library or reverting to reams of paper doesn't thrill me. And there's been such a push to force the consumer into accepting the idea of visiting—instead of using the phone or looking at a piece of paper—that there are now tangible benefits to doing it that way; you can refuse to play, but there's no advantage in it. You don't have to be an addict to understand that it's too late, in a practical sense, to turn back.

I disagree with Steve's statement about Google and Wikipedia doing away with the need for knowing facts. They're both wonderful tools, but their purpose is no different from that of any reference source of the past. Sure, they're a lot faster, availability is high, and the depth made possible by all those connections on the Net is staggering. But just try using either one during a test, and the need for fact-retention will become immediately apparent. I'm sure Steve used the word facts deliberately—he wasn't referring to knowledge, or understanding—and the Internet is indeed a poor substitute for the human mind, but as an extension it seems extraordinarily useful, and valid. If too much reliance on this new mind extension is cause for apprehension, a similar unease should be extended to virtually every facet of Western civilization. What if we suddenly lose our automobiles? Our phones, wireless or otherwise? We take our refrigerators—and the grocery stores that feed them—for granted, too.

We're deeply addicted to many things, but most are the result of social change; better stuff becomes available, and people want it. Many years ago, I asked a colleague—who happened to be an amateur astronomer, among other things—why he needed that fourteen-inch telescope when a few inches of aperture made such a large difference in price. With characteristic candor and simplicity he replied, "Because it's better." I think the same answer could be applied to the Internet versus brick-and-mortar libraries, or for that matter—and to borrow a point from the newspaper article to which Steve refers—Gutenberg's invention. If progress is defined as the adoption of better solutions as they become available, the Internet, like movable type, is more important than any misgivings about its future demise. It's worth the risk.

So is the Internet revolutionary, or devolutionary? Is it the mind-expanding equivalent of a library on steroids, or is it robbing us of the ability to think? Yes, yes, yes, and also yes. It's all of those things; it just depends on who you are, and what you want. It's revolutionary if you want to learn, communicate, or sell your product to the world, among other things. It will also waste your time, make you big as a house, and contribute to cardiovascular disease. For students and researchers, information retrieval is not only quicker than poring over endless volumes in a traditional library, but broader; the challenge now is narrowing the vast array of choices, instead of locating them in the first place. If a person's mind is bereft of useful knowledge, including facts, it may have more to do with how that person uses available time. It may also be a simple lack of motivation or interest. But someone, not something, is making the decisions that determine whether the Internet contributes to knowledge and reason, or furthers their decay. 



  1. Anonymous5:14 AM UTC

    This is the best article I've read in weeks. Thanks for such a carefully-considered, engaging, thought-provoking discussion! By the way, your closing line is perfect!

  2. Anonymous5:15 AM UTC

    Wow. I don't know what to say, except thanks for the kind words, Craig!!