The beginning of the 21st century has been defined by the internet. We all think we know how it has reshaped human life because we appreciate the apparent advances in communication and information it has brought. But there is also a darker side to the story of the internet: a paradox of isolation in an increasingly connected world; a world in which the elimination of loneliness has come at the cost of our privacy and individuality, and has somehow left us feeling emptier than before.
‘Surfing the web’ never made any sense to me and is a terrible metaphor, because one cannot surf on a web. The image of surfing is of great energy, freedom, elation and is a transient process. Surfing is a fun, quick, simple and occasional activity. To navigate a web you move between its nodes along their interconnecting lines like a fly along a spider’s web. The spider weaves the web, adding new connections and nodes in time. In reality though, we are all spiders travelling inside the web, creating and maintaining connections and nodes for each-other and ourselves. It’s as if, almost as unconsciously as spiders, we are constructing some sort of global supra-human brain with servers for neurones and fibre optic cables for synapses. Perhaps as in Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” our own minds will eventually become one with the internet and each other’s until we find ourselves as one unified consciousness. This situation is far off, but if it’s possible, probably closer than we imagine, because technology improves exponentially and our brains intuitively predict linearly. It may even be too far off to be relevant today, but I think this singularity of ultimate connectedness to the point of being one structure, the ultimate sacrifice of individuality and complete removal from familiar physical reality is the mutual destination humans and the internet are on course for. Although whether we will reach a technology singularity or not is speculative, it is useful to bear this possibility in mind when looking for the effects of the internet on our lives today.
Helpfully or malevolently, the internet is creeping closer and closer to our brains. The first computers with access to the internet were in laboratories and offices, making them completely separate from Humans and difficult to access. The internet then moved in with us at home, but was slow and frustrating and so was only used sparsely. Broadband then drew us closer and we began to spend more and more time on it as more of us created information to feast on. Wi-Fi and the laptop untethered the internet from the desk and allowed us to take it with us around our houses and between work and home – emails could be answered at work and then after dinner. We spent even more time online. Then came smart phones, fast mobile internet and free public Wi-Fi – the internet had now jumped from the kitchen table into our pocket and was carried in our clothing like a pet rat wherever we moved. And like a pet, it demanded our attention more and more and even gained our love and affections as we found that scrolling through Facebook and news became almost as pacifying as stroking a pet, and was also unexpectedly addictive. It’s now as if almost everyone has a pet in their pocket or handbag. Out at restaurants or around the dinner table, large groups of people are distracted by their needy pets and tend to them unashamedly. This inevitably disrupts and even blocks conversation between humans, but in reality we’re all petting the same animal. In the last two years the internet has clambered out of our pockets and along our arms onto our wrists and up onto our faces and now looks us directly in the eye in the form of google glass and virtual reality goggles. Contact lenses are the next step in augmented reality and if this progression continues then a direct skull implant awaits us. If we think of how quickly the internet moved from a few offices around the world to directly in front of our eyes then how long will it take before it is literally part of our minds? If we remember that even the rate of progress is increasing exponentially then it should be possible surprisingly soon. Whether we actually desire such an intrusion is another question and this may be the most powerful limiting pressure.
It is hard to imagine a life so much lived in the internet which could also be fully lived in the spatial world around us. I believe this splitting of our time and our lives between the two realities we inhabit is already a lifestyle issue today. Internet addiction and internet-induced social anxiety are largely unrecognised, but real, and wherever we look, people are distracted and distanced from their immediate surroundings and people. The more we live in the internet the less we live in reality. For each of us, and society as a whole, a decision looms over which reality to choose.
Quite possibly I’m painting too gloomy a future. The internet allows us instant access to a vast pool of knowledge and is perhaps the greatest expression of freedom of expression yet realised. It undoubtedly makes research and communication quicker and easier, and provides opportunities we’d not have without it, even revolutions have been started by the medium governments struggle to stifle. But perhaps this all comes at a cost. For every nugget of truth there exists misinformation and sensationalism, conspiracy theories, raw bigotry, cyberbullying, pornography and immoral trading. As soon as children learn to access the internet a nuclear chain reaction of unregulated and unending stimulation begins. Getting what you want immediately is desired, but very unhealthy because dopamine is released in the brain too often and in too great a quantity. We simply aren’t evolving as fast as the technology we create and our brains are already showing signs of being unable to healthily digest the fruits of the internet.
The simultaneous rise of the internet and depression is probably not coincidental. There is even a new segment of society in Japan known as Hikikomori; people who completely withdraw from outside life and social interaction, often living in computer games and socialising only with virtual girlfriends and boyfriends. This shows that life can be almost completely lived in the internet today and this will only become easier in the future.
I don’t think it’s just social recluses who are effected by absorption in the internet, however. It may not be obvious what harm constant sharing of one’s life on social media can do to immediate enjoyment of it, but this is a habit which affects many ‘normal’ people. The fact that many of us will take photographs of food before eating it deeply troubles me. This is a statement. We would rather disrupt the moment of anticipation when the waiter or waitress places a steaming dish of beautiful food; the aroma, the heat, the shine of the sauce and the careful presentation put before us as a temptation of imminent pleasure to take out a mobile phone and take several photographs and then share them on Facebook to people who are sitting bored at home and have nothing better to do than look at the food another human being they barely know is about to eat. If they would only put down their phone, pick up a fork and put it in their mouth; by which time the food has cooled, conversation has not been made with the waiter or the company at the restaurant and the gleeful moment portrayed in the photo has been completely disrupted by the uncouth use of a phone at the dinner table, leaving the company with a cold uneasy feeling of dissatisfaction and longing for the visceral moment they so anticipated when booking the restaurant. The flow of conversation has been disrupted by the internet’s competition for attention and the company devalued by the phone-user’s obvious desire to communicate with everyone else who isn’t in the restaurant. Subsequently, others at the table will probably become bored with each other and begin to browse Facebook and will, lacking any sense of irony, show the world just how much of a good time they too are having by liking or commenting on the photo of the other person’s food. We now live in a society where a woman is more embarrassed to breast feed in a restaurant than ignore her child to check her Facebook feed.
Of course, that was a very extreme and ranty example. But I’ve had the misfortune of being seated near such dystopian tables of airheaded young people as this. What I’m trying to show is that when we use the internet for certain things it stops adding to life and begins stealing from it. When our minds are occupied by thoughts of how we will appear online, we are less present in the moment. In an effort to remember, share and show off our lives we have diluted the feelings in them. For example, a sunset no longer provokes thoughts of why nature is so beautiful and how lucky we are to be alive and seeing, but instead the thought ‘I better get my camera! This will make me look spiritual and fulfilled if I put it on Facebook’ fills the void of stunned awe. We share moments we never really had because we were too busy sharing them, pictures we never saw because we were looking at a phone screen and say things to hundreds of lonely people in 147 characters of ASCII instead of in long phone calls, letters or over a cup of tea and a biscuit.
If the final end of the internet really does turn out to be a singularity of pure interconnectedness with no individuality, then I think it would be a terrible shame. If the hive mentality of twitter storms contrasted with the beautiful solitary thoughts of certain humans can be taken as a warning, then we should guard the individual as sacred. The freedom to think like an individual and to live only through one’s own perspective has produced works of genius no collective body could ever hope to achieve. We are fundamentally lonely beings. The line by the songwriter Ben Folds “How does it feel to realise you’re all alone behind your eyes?” really shook me as a ten-year-old boy. Today it is a comfort. We are born the masters of our own minds, the only place tyranny cannot enter is the realm of the mind. We are solitary viewers of the world who like to connect with each other. The internet makes it too easy to do this in only superficial ways and so, for all its benefits, we must learn how to use the internet more sensibly. The same applies for the endless media stimulation we can find: the trashy celebrity articles, pornography music and amusing videos – it becomes too much to stomach if abused. The next challenge for the internet is for it to find a way to cohabit with us, not assimilate us. Just as when a new drug is discovered, we must learn how to safely use it and in the case of the internet we must make sure we never ever give up our individuality and remain alone behind our eyes.