Monday, July 26, 2010

The Internet Is A Vast Wasteland

This should be a revelation to few. While studies are not conclusive, for every man-hour saved by being able to immediately determine the availability of King Ding Dong lunchboxes for home delivery, at least another man-hour is wasted, filling up our brains with information about things that have no value whatsoever. Such as Sarah Palin's children's wedding plans. And King Ding-Dong lunchboxes.

Almost 50 years ago, then-FCC chairman Newton M. Minow declared television to be a vast wasteland. He's 84 years old today. I wonder what he would have to say about the Internet? With the hindsight of someone born moments after the first human being is known to have stepped on the moon, who still remembers such things as 13 channels and black-and-white programming, I can tell you it's a hundred thousand times worse. Maybe more.

But this thought didn't just occur to me out of the blue today. I subscribe to upwards of a hundred different blogs. I don't read them all regularly, but skim a lot of them. Many are personal blogs, that I happened to read once and I found interesting or well written or funny, and so I susbscribed. Two different posts on two absolutely unrelated (and indeed, almost diametrically opposed) blogs touched on this. The first is from a blog called the committed parent which is written by a "social neuroscience educator." I'm not exactly sure what that is, but he writes about child psychology. His last post discusses the downsides of having so much information available and its consequences on creativity, intellectual development, and wisdom.

The other is from a personal blog written by some Canadian guy who calls himself The Real Johnson. I know nothing about this guy except from some of his posts, but he writes well and is often funny. Oh yeah, he likes to drink, too. His last post is called "Internet Killed The Artist" and, from a totally different perspective (possibly drunk) from our PhD child psychologist above, comes to much the same conclusion.

I happened to read these two posts back-to-back and was stunned by the parallelism. In real life, these two individuals could be arch-nemeses. Yet separated by thousands of miles, several decades of life experience, 8 or so beers a day, and a Royal Mounted Police border crossing, they both wrote about the same notion today.

Internet usage is supposed to surpass TV watcing in 2010, at least in Europe. I am not sure exactly how you'd define "internet use," though, since a lot of people watch TV online. If I download a movie from the internet and watch it on a TV, does that count? Anyway, the distinction is fuzzy because "internet usage" could be doing stuff on your iPhone, or playing games, or all kinds of things that can be done on a variety of devices, or may be essentially similar to what you used to do on a TV. The mediums are merging and changing constantly.

But at the end of the day, wherever all this goes, I think that watching television (just watching it) will soon be something that is so passive, that fewer and fewer people will be able to do it. Our collective attention span gets smaller every year as technology invades every aspect of our lives. We lack the patience needed to immerse ourselves in any single pursuit, because we can achieve the kind of gratification we seek from the shallow alternatives that technology make available.

The television is no longer a stage, it is an extension of a the information matrix that weaves through every part of modern life. There is no need to sit and watch it, when you can take it with you and interact with it. We aren't interested in being passively entertained, we want our entertainment to actively engage us and respond to our feedback or we will lose interest.

Historically, anthropologists have demonized television for its passivity. It demands little of its users to entertain them. But could it be that the opposite problem is no better? As people become accustomed to instant gratification from life connected to the Internet, we are losing our ability to pay attention to anything. Even crappy television.

I predict that just sitting on your couch and watching television will soon be a lost art. Parents will beg their kids to unplug from the hive and just try to do something that doesn't give them any "likes" or comments for an hour or two. Television, once predicted to destroy the world, could be the last hope for saving it.

The child psychologist, in this post, says that we need to "spend time in nature, meditating," among other things. While I think his advice is good, the chances of getting most kids to unplug long enough to meditate is about zero. After all, there are a lot of wifi dead spots in nature.

So let's all do our best to get out in nature. I bet few of us can say we've been more than 200 feet away from the nearest automobile in the last month. But barring that, let's at least all pledge to stop checking our email for a couple hours and watch some good old fashioned TV.


Johnson said...

Very interesting. These bloggers you mention seem quite intriguing. I may have to mosey over to their blogs and have a read. Maybe post a comment. Subscribe to their blogs even...

I totally agree that humans are evolving so that even the act of watching TV is too passive. I don't remember the last time I watched TV when I wasn't working on the computer, checking my blackberry, cooking dinner and building a multi-storey birdhouse at the same time.

I'm actually worried that if this trend keeps up, our generation's children will essentially be fucking hummingbirds.

I'd also like to point out the irony of opening a blog post with a comment about the hundreds of blogs you follow and closing with a plea to unplug and get outside. Not to mention using the irony of posting that guy's article about the internet making us less connected in order to connect him to me, a complete stranger. God! So much irony!! Aaahhh!!!

(Thanks for the shout out)

Jamie said...

I'm glad the irony was not lost. I am nothing if not acutely aware of my own contradictions. Oh yeah, I spent all day yesterday watching television and I've barely been outside today! But I do feel bad about it.

Alex said...

there is now actual evidence that the internet makes people dumber.

kob said...

The Real Johnson makes a good point. I want to believe it is nothing more than a tempting generalization or challenging taunt, but I don't think so.

There's something seriously wrong with the cultural direction that goes way way beyond the Internet.

The obesity rates are increasing; we're becoming a less healthy.

This current financial crisis is mostly the result of a lack of self-control and greed.

The obsession with celebrity (Google news hits, to give an idea of scale: 15,833 for lindsay lohan; 26,539 for obama) is unhealthy as well.

And I also believe that the entire idea of a protracted "conversations" on blogs is coming to an end, at least on the bigger and more popular outlets. People aren't engaging in "conversation" they're just shouting in an already empty room.

There was one longtime blogger in DC who left to raise sheep in Vermont. He and wife still blog, and post pictures of their sheep. I'll bet they spend less time on the Internet. It's a lifestyle choice that is beginning to make enormous sense and in the end that's what it comes down to.

Great post; thanks for it.

K.C. said...

Where's the "like" button?

ahhh, just kidding. I have nothing to add except that I agree.