If you speak negatively about the Internet, many folks will look at you like you’re wearing Bermuda shorts and black socks and carrying a metal detector. Admittedly, I am a technology crank. I have a cell phone, but I don’t want to do anything with it other than talk. I am suspicious of people selling gadgets that are supposed to make my life easier. I see people speaking to themselves on the street and think that they’re off in some way, then realize they’re on a Bluetooth headset. The first time I saw this I vowed never to be that guy.
Don’t get me wrong, the world-at-our fingertips kind of life has real perks. I use the Web every day. It’s so useful for the quick answer. I have been a reporter in the pre-Web days. And it’s far easier to get information now, such as confirming the spelling of place names. As a kid, I called the local library with my school project questions. The woman on the other end of the phone was a whiz at finding information. Our local librarians were the Internet before there was the Internet. Yet, they could never compete with our new powerful tools.
But over time, my simplistic wide-eyed wonder about the unbelievable scope of information online has morphed into a new, more cynical view about how our society is fundamentally changing.
Of course, such pessimism is not an unusual sentiment for a newspaperman these days, given the troubles of the industry. But beyond worries about the bleak media economy, I can’t help but notice that the Web presents a strange paradox. While it is a tool for opening the world to us, it is also a mechanism for greater self centeredness. Many people seem more interested in letting the world hear about themselves than in learning about the world around them — no matter how little they actually have to say and how much they need to learn.
You can also use the Web to be a voyeur. Want to know how somebody’s house looks? Well, look up their address online, then go to Google Maps, type it in, and chances are that somebody has driven down that road with a camera and filmed the house and posted it on Google. You can perhaps even zoom in on their front door. I find this disturbing. But it’s part of our new way of life.
Of course, the cyber world allows people to vent without the accountability of a face or a name attached. I’m sorry, but that’s never going to be a benefit to society, because it pushes debate toward hostile extremes, rather than toward a more reasonable center.
Meanwhile, the Web economy is based on restless fingers. Ad rates are set on a per-click count. Sites with advertising don’t want you to sit still and read anything for too long. For instance, that’s why an attractive woman is usually in the top right corner of the AJC website. They want your click. Everything is designed to catch your eye to make you move to something else. The more outrageous the material, the more clicks you’ll get. For instance, this paper’s one-day click record is 30,000 and it came off a story about a man’s homemade pleasure device. If we were interested in pure clicks, we’d acknowledge that the base nature of humanity is what sells best and we’d tailor content toward that. Yes, that’s true no matter the medium, but in the sparse ad revenue world of the Web, it’s even more the case.
Ultimately, I believe the Web is a magnificent tool for quick answers, but it discourages more contemplative thinking that comes with sitting back and reading longer narratives. The way we jump around is handy at times, certainly entertaining, but I think it has a long-term negative effect, creating a type of societal attention deficit disorder (ADD). We’re hooked on the information equivalent of fast food — something convenient but not necessarily healthy.
Yes, the Web is an amazing accomplishment for mankind. It is a technological wonder of the world. But whether it is ultimately good or bad for American society depends on what we make of it.
And, yes, too often, it makes us dumber.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.