September 22, 2019

Don’t Blame the Internet.


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Books are written about the ills of the Internet, how it has disrupted our way of thinking and shortened our attention span.

The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, even asserts it is reconfiguring our brain.

Are we victims of our own making? Have we created a monster that, like Frankenstein’s, has turned on its creator? I think not.

Blaming the Internet for society’s ills is like blaming guns for killing people. Whether it is a gun or a computer, the user is responsible for employing it and how it is employed. Both computers and guns can be used to harm people; wars are, after all, planned on computers. But it is the computer that is far more widely misused, at least in peacetime.

So, let’s have a look to see what leads to misuse of this technology.

Recently I read an article about how the Kindle Book causes the reading experience to be different from reading a traditional book because it offers hyperlinks, and so forth, that are relevant to the story. One reader gives the example of how she was reading Moby Dick and upon seeing a hyperlink to its author, Herman Melville, followed that, and ended up reading a Wikipedia article on his life. By the time she finished that article, she was out of sync with the book. Many claim the “deep reading” experience possible with tradition print books is not possible on a Kindle because of its abundance of features, which include dictionaries, hyperlinks, and so forth, that lure one away from the content.

Printed matter in the form of magazines and newspapers are now imitating digital media, with shorter articles of less depth, because the attention span of their reading public has been undermined by the instant gratification of the Net. We are given a quantity of synopses rather than long, in-depth articles because that is what we want and we want it because we have become accustomed to the Net’s cryptic presentations.

We have habituated ourselves to being entertained by many snippets of news and information, and that has undermined our penchant for absorbing ourselves in well-written, informative, and engaging articles.

I don’t know if a survey has ever been done to assess how many hunters have killed people, but my guess it would be few compared with non-hunters. Hunters know the use of their weapons and are unlikely to set out on a winter day to get their venison supply at a shopping mall.

As far as computers go, the same principle applies. A physicist working on a problem is not going to be distracted by some irrelevant hyperlink that pops up, or check the weather, or plays a game. Such distractions will not tempt him because he is absorbed in what he is doing. The same can be said of lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, stockbrokers, and so forth when they employ computer technology and the Net to accomplish specific goals and needs.

We get into trouble with computers and the Internet when we idly use them with no clear purpose in mind.

A rifle belongs on the rifle rack until season opens, and the Net’s use also has its time and place. To an idle mind everything seems attractive, and the devil’s workshop is the Net when used without purpose. If we respect ourselves and the enabling power of the Net, we would use it precisely and with intention. We don’t cruise around town looking here and there just because we have a car and can, so why do we cruise the Net just because we have a computer, smartphone, and Internet connection?

There is no point in blaming the Internet that our information-hungry culture craves knowledge without regard to its relevance to our lives.

We are sort of like gossiping old ladies, but now gossip has gone high tech and instead of the innocuous half-dozen ladies on a park bench, the Net connects us with millions of online adventurers.

We all seek happiness, but happiness is elusive. We find empty time in our day disquieting and fill it up any way we can. This is like filling up with junk food rather than waiting for mealtime. Wouldn’t we be better off if we waited until we have a clear purpose in mind before using the Net?

The Internet has evolved to what it is today because of the use we make of it. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about it. If we restrict our use to purposeful use, it will serve us well. If not, we are its slaves and will disconnect from ourselves as we feed on impertinent information.

My friend saw a bumper sticker on a car while driving on the freeway that said: “I don’t know where I am going, but I am going like hell.”

We are living in a fast-paced society, but where is it going? Where are we going? No need to turn on the ignition, if we don’t know where we are going, nor press the “Start” button without a clear intention why.

It is often said that computers and the Net are enabling technologies, but if we don’t ask questions that are pertinent to our lives, what use are answers? In addition, if we fail to communicate what our audience needs to hear, are we not intruding upon them? I’m often messaged photos with no caption explaining where or who it is, and articles that I cannot relate to, and cannot but feel how disrespectful it is that the enthusiasm to communicate has prevailed over the usefulness of the communication. It is rude.

Indiscriminate use of technology has caught us off guard because it is so easy. We have become careless at a great cost to ourselves. Deeply reading a book, careful study, thoughtful communication, and many other cultured habits are disappearing as we are baited by trivialities flashing through our consciousness creating the illusion of gratification.

However, one look at the focus and comportment of a person absorbed in a book, a scientist working on a problem, a businessman composing a proposal, all on a computer, will tell you that a relationship is underway, and that computers can serve us well.

Why do we instead often choose flipping through web pages and clicking hyperlinks? Is it because we have no sense of purpose and idly pick them up? Each individual must ask this question because it can lead to more thoughtful use of the powerful tools at our disposal.

The Buddha taught to avoid idle conversation, as it exhausts our prana, life force. The same could be said of any action idly engaged in, but computers are particularly dangerous because the illusion of accomplishing something when we are not is so deceptive and powerful.

Many of us are losing our mind to the Internet, but the cause is our own, not the Net. The Net gives us the ability to do more, better, but are we doing that?

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