I’ve encountered this myth too often: that the internet dilutes the intimacy of our relationships, shortens our focus and attention spans, and generally causes more problems than it solves. We fear that using technology is changing the fundamental structure of our minds.
Enter this article by Paul Miller at The Verge, who conduced a year-long experiment on himself in which he eschewed all things online for the sake of this study. He suspended his email, online reading, social media–everything.
Of course, Miller read more and wrote more. He went form 10 pages to 100 pages of reading in a single sitting. He was more physically active and even lost weight. This reminds me of vacation syndrome, when we go somewhere unplugged and have to create our own activities to spend time together. He even reports being better at relating with his sister because his attention is more focused on her instead of half-distracted by a computer or smartphone.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
And, of course, Miller discovered that he was still himself despite changing this one aspect of his surroundings. This is similar to the phenomenon people have when they travel to new cities or countries expecting to create a totally new life and personality. No matter how far we travel, we take ourselves with us wherever we go.
In other words, Miller discovered that, in fact, the internet does make our lives easier. We use the internet to make phone calls, retrieve information, and organize our projects. He also learned that we can’t divide “real world” from “virtual world” experiences. This false dichotomy has surfaced several times recently over our dinner table as my husband and I debate how real-world and virtual-world experiences are intertwined. Perhaps the problem with this debate is the use of the term “world” to describe the different spheres of communication and activity. The word worlds implies different ground rules, populations, activities, and histories. Yet, no matter how far we go into a virtual world, we still bring ourselves and our bodies to the computer.
Miller’s description of the internet to his five-year-old niece as a network of lines connecting computers, cell phones, and televisions with one another illustrates how simplistic it is to assume that online activities are bad. I can’t help but make the leap that those networks are connecting people as well as devices, and any attempt to sever those ties between people because of their devices is short-sighted and isolating.
Would we bring the same presumptions about the internet’s futility to similar situations? For example, would it make sense to push someone with a speech problem, perhaps due to a stroke or other illness, to stop using a computer-aided communication device simply because we are dubious about the technology’s effects on her mind? I’m not accusing Miller of any shortsightedness in his experiment; I’m simply suggesting that perhaps our culture’s conservative and cautious critiques of the internet are more motivated by fears and judgment of our human flaws. The internet is the scapegoat.