Justin Raudys / The Silhouette
Being part of what one of my professors calls “a special generation” – that is, the first generation to grow up online – it’s becoming hard for me to recall those bygone days when an unanswered problem or question wasn’t instantly turned into a Google search. The pre-Internet world is a hazy, distant past to the many millions of people around the world who were, like me, born in the 1990s.
I can ring off countless things about the Internet that are not only lovable but utterly extraordinary: one can hear the words and voices of the greatest teachers and musicians and philosophers that ever lived at the click of a search button; one can instantaneously see and hear loved ones thousands of kilometers away, free of cost; the poorest person in the world could, with that magical connection, tap into all imaginable fields of education in existence.
The Internet is here to stay, and it’s allowing previously unthinkable things to be achieved. But as much as I love the Internet, I equally loathe my incapacity to tear myself from its grasp. I suppose you could say it’s a virtual love/hate relationship. This dichotomy of hate obviously doesn’t come from the abovementioned examples of the positive and constructive capacities of online connections. It comes from something that the Internet does to us when, as it’s so easy to do, we overuse it.
The Internet is ever-increasing in its ability to immerse us and is rapidly becoming more and more integrated into the daily affairs of all people, especially those in my age group.
But I don’t often see the questions asked, what should we make of this increasing immersion in the digital world? In what ways is this increasing reliance on the Internet changing us? Are these changes for the worse or for the better?
I fear – and many of my colleagues share this sentiment – that the quick-fire mode of online data consumption and the condensation of information into ever-smaller and ever-easier-to-consume fragments have undermined my attention span.
Indeed, as an English major I feel blasphemous in conceding that I often find it hard to simply sit down and read long passages of text – even a news article can seem, after prolonged Internet use, tediously long.
Why? It seems to me as though it’s largely because I have trained my mind day after day, month after month, year after year to become accustomed to the fast-flashing, bite-sized, viral-video-serving conveyor belt of quick, cheap entertainment and information that often comes with the likes of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and so on.
Now, to argue that my “hate” – my addiction to the Internet and its effect on my mind – doesn’t stem from my own vices would be idiotic. It smacks of the lawsuits obese Americans have made against McDonalds, charging the golden arches for being responsible for their personal plight.
But I encounter this problem among many of my friends with increasing frequency and am convinced that the Internet is undermining many people’s ability to stay focussed on one thing and, by extension, to truly savour moments that are worth cherishing and to take the time to ponder things that are worth pondering. After all, how often do we see a large group of young friends completely invested in spending time with each other in the moment without at least someone veering off into the world of distraction on their phone? How often do we see people constantly reading vacuous things on the Internet instead of reading books?
Sitting at the back of one of my large English classes, I surveyed what is now surely a common sight in universities: of the upwards of fifty laptops in the class, more than half of them had Facebook open. I may sound old fashioned, but something about that image just doesn’t sit right with me. Are we so neurotically obsessed with staying up to date and up to the minute with all our Facebook friends that we can’t even sit through 50 minutes that are supposed to be reserved for actually focusing and learning things? I must admit that I have often, like many people I know, made checking Facebook one of the first things – if not the first thing – I do in the day.
I know the phrase “take it slow” reads as utterly cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not of value, and I think that it’s precisely what a lot of Internet over-users like me could benefit from doing. I know I profit every time I take a moment to circumspect, to breathe in, to think a little more deeply, to reflect on who I am and to take time to think about what I’m doing – and I know that jumping on the Internet every ten minutes isn’t exactly helping me do that.
The levels of Internet use are only increasing, and what I see as the problem of Internet addiction is only going to get worse.
Cornel West says that the Internet’s “clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.” I’d have to say I agree. The irony? I saw it on his Facebook page.