Rethinking the Value of the Internet

June 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.



  1. good points Mike.

    I literally live on the web for a living. probably 50 hours a week in a browser. It’s my job and my mission field.

    I’ve learned to see it as a tool, that has helped a lot. It is a means to enrich relationships and provide some presence in the lives of people whom I might otherwise have much less presence in.

  2. It’s as if you took the words right from my brain and mouth. I am a huge reader and books have been my life blood since I learned to read. I love the smell of a book, I check out books from the library on a regular basis, and I love print on paper. On my walk today noticing the beauty of my surroundings I could hear God whispering to me about the “rushing” of life and how God really doesn’t want us “rushing”. Will there come a time when things can’t get any faster? I look at fb (fakebook I call it sometimes) friends posting about they can’t wait to get this version of the updated phone, or that one, or whatever is the latest, the fastest, the hippest, the coolest, and sort of laugh. We become a society that cares more about having the latest in technology than our relationship to God and others. I can hear someone saying-yes but technology connects us with so many people etc. but at what cost? I definitely love what you mentioned about Bill Gates and how he limits his children’s time on the computer, and your goals for internet usage. I need to come up with some goals like that myself. Thank You!

  3. Vince, your situation is unique (or at least more rare) than most people’s. I am curious if you have found that being on the Internet all day has negative effects on you. What do you do to counter these?

    • After a year of full time internet ministry I can say that I’m not noticing significant negative changes to my social/mental/emotional well being. But then I’ve never had trouble with that. I can easily see how someone that is less out going and social could get ruined by the internet.

      I would add that the single biggest misconception on the internet is that people aren’t ‘real’ or that they throttle back or adjust their reality on the web. We have found that in fact the opposite is true. The experiences our prayer team has when interacting with people on the internet campus is significantly more messy, raw and real than the teams at our physical campuses. Every week.

      Even in say, Facebook, people get very real. This becomes especially true as you learn people’s personality via the web and how to read them…which I think you can truly do.

  4. Jeannie: Thanks for your comments. Many people are saying that books won’t disappear (certainly not from our homes). But will small bookshops be able to survive? I can’t see any way for that to happen. The Barnes and Nobles of this world will exist for much longer because they can sell lattes, calendars and games as well as books. But for the true lover of paper books, technology will not be kind.

  5. Mike like you I spent a lot of my college years learning basic, dumpster diving, and traveling th Wild Blue Younder. I keep a bible on my phone at all tines and set alarms when I log on to take two or more hour life breaks. Since I am not a gamer, I also find it a little easier to take said breaks. As an avid reader and writer, I love paper as much as electronics and refuse to write on the pc until it is completed. I read very littly on my I pad unless it is in the story blogging sites that only publish on completion. Equalizing is the greatest challange of any age. Ditractions reinvent themselves in all time lines the Internet is just another because in the endless tweets of I am walking my dog… Sometime you will come across someone reaching out and needing help, the pearl that makes the swine pale. I let the Lord direct my Internet use like any other area in my life… Kicking, fighting, and finaly submitting. As Jimmy Webb would say “I would tell you only, that I have a bit of a stuburn strick”

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