As Thanksgiving has come and gone, it gives me hope, but also a worry I can’t seem to shake. I tend to stay on local issues with energy policy and the salt mine leading the way, but in the spirit of the holiday, I hope you’ll indulge me in asking a broad question: is the internet a societal good?
Families traveled hundreds of miles to be with their families last week. Events are hosted to bring folks together on this most American of holidays. Free dinners are arranged. It’s one day out of the year where people seem to want to be with their fellow human beings. But what about all the other days? I hear politicians say the rural areas need more broadband. There’s no doubt the internet is a modern wonder of the world. I can get an answer on how to cook a turkey with video in under 30 seconds or how to pull an aircraft out of a spin (I suggest you do that before you’re actually in a spin). But what did we do before that? We asked someone, or read a book. With the internet, we’ve been robbed of two opportunities: the chance to make a human connection, but also to rely on someone. We’ve become a more isolated society with the internet.
Is the ease completing errands worth the disconnectedness we now feel? I no longer have to go to the bank for instance, but I still choose to; I know the tellers, the branch manager. In exchange for convenience, we’ve seen a fracturing of our community, a loss of seeing how others in our community live and work.
Amazon will soon build two new headquarters. The company had a chance to pick cities like Buffalo and Rochester and make them the company towns they once were. Instead, the company chose the status quo with high housing costs, struggling schools, and congestion. I bring up Amazon because while they’ve been breaking up communities on the retail side when they had the chance to bring a community together under their banner, they chose against it. I shop at Amazon, it’s easy. But is the quick delivery and sometimes cheaper prices worth the loss of local retailers? You used to know the person who sold you your coat. You might have had a relationship, or not, but at least you interacted with someone and your money stayed in the community.
I went out to dinner the other night and there were five adults and a kid having dinner and the boy is on a phone. I was on a date and the couple next to us were on their phones. I think we’re all guilty of this. A recent Nature Valley commercial showed three generations of people. The oldest related tales of outdoor adventure, the youngest talked about his online world and said, to the shock and sadness of his parents, that he sometimes forgot he had a family.
The most popular websites are search engines replacing books and our neighbors, entertainment, which has gone from a shared experience at places for thousands like the State Theater to now a performance at home, shopping which was a person to person transaction, and “social” media.
Some of my friends argue that what I’m talking about is the corrosive effects of social media and not the entire internet, but I’m not sure of that. I do see how social media, while claiming to bring people together, drives them apart in several ways. It robs people of time they might otherwise spend in their own communities developing relationships. I love hearing from my best friends from high school, but I hope that will never draw me away from the community I live in. Social media is also for many a place of perfection. That trip you see to somewhere you may never go, doing something you may never do. I don’t ascribe jealousy to it as much as regret of not living up to your own expectations.
Others argue that the news is better with the internet. Faster doesn’t always mean better. I see a lot more cheap opinion masquerading as analysis now than I had before the internet. In the effort to be first, news organizations have cheapened themselves by forgoing former standards of verification, often getting stories wrong or not reporting on stories altogether. The ratio of tabloid stories to stories on the economy or even about our military conflicts in the world has been remarkable.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about there being a loneliness epidemic in America. I believe there is, driven in part by the internet. It allows us to live separate lives, relying on no one, with no unifying principle. I’d suggest that’s part of the political discord today. Thanks to the internet, you’re no longer arguing with your neighbor up the street (I still do that), but with someone you’ll never meet, someone you’ll never answer to, a community that you’ll never build. Sure, I like cat videos too, but the Bobcats in Lansing are more deserving of my time.
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