Rethinking the Value of the InternetJune 23, 2010
The brochure claimed there were 32 bookstores in the Harvard Square area. Nothing makes me drool more than strolling through delicious rows of books, picking a few to consume and digest later. My wife and I caught the subway and rode it out to Harvard.
One store was devoted to Law books, another to medical textbooks and one store just had travel journals. But I saved the most enthusiasm for a rare bookstore in the basement of one shabby chic walkup. It was way too organized – this threw off my equilibrium. One of the joys of used book store trolling is the experience of finding gems hiding in boxes lingering in the corners of the aisle.
I settled into two areas: Mathematics and Writing. Unfortunately, I had at least a dozen of the math titles and several of the writing books. Becoming bored, I eavesdropped on the conversation of the store owner and a man at the counter.
“I give my store about two more years and then I’ll have to close it down” the owner said.
“Why do you think that is?” the man asked.
“Kindle, Nook and Ipads will take over the industry. I had a guy in here from MIT looking for some rare books that he could put into digital form for Amazon. He told me they were now getting permission from every publisher to put all titles in digital form. By the end of next year, there will be little demand for paper books.”
They talked some more and I pondered this event. As a writer, I have my own feelings about how the digital world changes the writing guild. Similar changes have already come in the music, art, travel, newspaper, magazine, education and investment industries – and there is no question the changes will cause upheavals for at least a decade.
I have pondered for a long time what this could mean for each of our lives. I am not thrilled with the Internet any longer.
I have a longer history than most people with the Internet. I began using it in 1989 when it was called Arpanet. I had to log on through a BBS (Bulletin Board Service) called Exec PC. I lived in Montana and spent a small fortune dialing up Milwaukee to get on. It was all text-based and only geeks resided in the murky corners of this world. We were all connected, but only barely. It was full of anarchy and sarcasm, but I loved it.
When the Internet started to become graphical in 1994, I was pleased by the ease it offered. But then I started to notice how quickly this media chewed up my life. I experienced for the first time what almost every person since has discovered: Your first year with the Internet is like a honeymoon. It was so intoxicating. Very few websites had much data, but CNN and ESPN were full of stuff to explore, and Yahoo and Altavista opened up the myriad of small, intriguing sites.
I loved it. I could do research at blazing speed compared to the past. Articles and book ideas would fly off my keyboard as fast as I could research them. Of course, I played a few games on the computer as well (Simcity, Microsoft Golf and Need for Speed captured me at times). But then I had to swallow a deadly reality – my time was being sucked into the Online World. I had to put limits on myself, but it was so difficult. By 1996, I finally had cut down to one hour a day, and I instructed all those who worked under me to keep to this time limit. I am sure most of them were not able to.
Today, with television, movies, music, books, travel, investments and all the news you could ever read available online, the average person has invited the Internet to be an integral part of their lives. Add social media and VOIP phones to that mix and I foresee people being hooked up all their waking hours.
What are the dangers as this starts to happen? Here is what I can see with my limited prophetic sight.
1. Since Social Media often replaces people actually getting together, we will confuse Internet intimacy with real intimacy. This is already happening with texting…people think they fully understand what others are saying in print. Since the majority of communication is non-verbal, no Emoticon is going to convey the intensity of pain, rejection, bitterness, joy or fear quite properly. We will slowly insulate ourselves from real contact with other people, while kidding ourselves that we have many real friends. For example, people are jettisoning real church services for virtual ones. Certainly, “Real Church” means that people can hurt you – but they can bring healing too. In virtual church, no one can get in your face, and no babies are crying in the background (unless they’re yours). At the same time, no one is allowed to help change your life.
2. The Economy may get more complicated because of the Internet. Believe it or not, all this online commerce may prolong some of the financial difficulties our country is experiencing. This is complicated, but let me summarize. In his book, “The World is Flat”, economist Thomas Friedman says that the Internet is the Great Equalizer for the poor of this world. It is just as easy for a person in India or South Africa to provide you with a service or product as someone in Boston or Salt Lake City. And knowing the average Indian makes $2,000/year, making five times that much is mind-boggling. But, that still means he can work for a third of what an American shop owner makes in salary. The Internet has all but destroyed Travel Agencies (only a few exist for the elderly and a few Luddites) and will soon send newspapers to the same grave. Few print newspapers will survive past 2015, according to Hearst, the largest newspaper chain in the country. Think of your friends getting college degrees in Communications or Journalism. Who are they going to work for? Online news cannot pay them what the print edition did, since no one pays for a newspaper online. Writers who used to get a dollar for every print edition of their books will now get a dime for every digital edition. Musicians who made a percentage of every CD sold, now get nothing as people trade songs through the Internet. Other than absolutely solid commodities like food and clothes, everything else will be obtained online. All of that can be done more cheaply by those outside of our country. Eventually, we will figure out how to make money in the New World Economy (even writers), but in the meantime, many people are going to be hungry.
3. Because of the Internet, Christians have changed what they do with free time. I believe the moral and ethical basis for society comes from those with solid principles who live by them. But those principles have to be LIVED in the real world. The Internet has never been a popular place for those with principles.
I notice three things that Christians rarely do now; pray, read their bibles, serve others. The time dedicated to doing those things is now spent on downloading songs, sharing trite and meaningless observations on Twitter or constant re-views of the weather, sports and news. Even if we spend time on Facebook praying for those we see there (as I try to do) or do counseling through Skype (as I also do sometimes) it is still time taken away from being with real people in real situations. I have spoken with people who used to pray for hours a day for friends and loved ones. Every one of them who is on the Internet admits they do not pray as they used to. And the rest struggle with television. Does this worry me? Desperately, for I believe prayer changes things. If this country is not undergirded by prayer, what will happen to our future?
4. We are losing the ability to be reflective. The faster you can get information, the less time you spend processing that same information. Important decisions we make in life require lengthy times of contemplation and reflection. Without the time to be reflective, we become Reactive instead. Reactive people become one-dimensional in decision-making – either too emotional or too intellectual – and without reflection, they go to their default decision-making mode.
There are a few answers to this. I was reading a biographical sketch of Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) the other day. The writer revealed that Bill and his wife Melinda only allow their children to go onto the Internet for 45 minutes a day. When asked why, he said “I want them to play and learn. I want them to be normal. I regret how the Internet can make robots of intelligent people.” Bill Gates is as brilliant as people say he is.
Here are three goals I have for this year regarding the Internet.
1. To use it primarily as a tool. I use it mainly to look up data, to write, to keep track of business and find out what I need to pray for.
2. To have time limits that I will not violate. I have a timer on my computer that shuts off the Internet if I use it too much.
3. I have days where I refuse to go online at all.
I would love to hear what you have done to limit the effect of the Internet on yourself.