Most of us recognize the many benefits that the 40-year technology boom has brought us. We have more computing power in our smartphones than large business computers had only a few decades ago. The same smartphones take pictures, bring us music, provide directions and GPS capability. And, oh yeah, they even make phone calls. We have immediate access to people and information all over the world. Technology in the fields of medicine, education, science, entertainment and communications have brought us to levels that seemed like science fiction 40 years ago. (Read more in Astounding Sci-Fi Ideas That Came True (and Some That Didn't.)
But all those benefits don't come free of charge, or at least not without a lot of disruption – both to society and to our personal lives.
The Macro Effect
The idea that technology would cause disruption in our day-to-day lives has been around for decades. In 1994, Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, professors at the City University of New York and St. John’s University, respectively, warned of the mass unemployment that the creative disruption of technology would bring in their book "The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work." Since then, economists and pundits have continued to beat the drum for understanding the dire consequences of this disruption and the need for long-range planning to deal with it. Despite all this, little has happened and the present gridlock in Washington shows little capability of dealing with immediate problems, never mind long-term ones. Kevin Drum, writing about robots in a Mother Jones article, "Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?" agrees that that increasingly clever computers will initially create great unemployment but feels that society will restructure and, that by 2040, all will be well.
Recently, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, author of "You Are Not A Gadget" and "Who Owns The Future," has added another angle to the mix. He feels that the internet explosion has fed the recession and is destroying the middle class. He describes previous mass technology disruptions, such as the movement from horses to cars, as both eliminating jobs (blacksmiths, stable rentals, etc.) and creating new ones (factory workers, auto mechanics, gas station owners and attendants). He feels that the creation end of this equation has not been met in the present disruption. Here's why: The public spends massive amounts of time online, much of which is recorded by Facebook, Google, and many other large firms. These firms create models of our activity and both use it to structure their own marketing efforts and sell it to other firms that aggregate the data, refine it and resell it. Lanier points out that we, the providers of the data, make nothing from it, while the collectors and aggregators make a good deal. He suggests a return to the vision of hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson, who foresaw a global marketplace where all participants are both buyers and sellers, and where the sellers receive compensation not only for their products, but also for any personal information they choose to release. (Learn more about Ted Nelson in The Pioneers of the World Wide Web.)
All of the perceived negatives mentioned so far are macro ones that affect society as a whole: unemployment, the decline of the middle class, etc. There are also those who feel that our absorption with the internet is bad for us as individuals, causing us to lose the ability to focus on complex issues, absorb long articles or concentrate on books.
The Micro Effect
When online, it is natural to multitask, to be reading email while we wait for a Facebook response or for an Excel worksheet to save. Education writer Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Brilliant Report, wrote a piece entitled "Why Learning and Multitasking Don't Mix," which details a study conducted at California State University-Dominguez Hills and published in Computers in Human Behavior. In the study, students were observed when supposedly concentrating on studying or test-taking and were found to be unable to not be distracted by their devices or connections. In a 15-minute test period, it wasn’t long before their attention drifted. Students' "on-task behavior" started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. "By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork." The researchers were amazed at how frequently the students multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching. "It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices. It was kind of scary, actually," the researchers concluded.
The article goes on to detail other studies that have come to much the same conclusion and show that multitasking students generally grade lower than the ones who were able to focus only on the material at hand. (Read more in How Technology Is Changing Our Brains.)
Paul is not alone in warning about a negative impact that immersion in the cyberworld may have on individuals. Two highly readable books, "Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age" by William Powers and Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains" explore these issues in depth. Both authors see individuals swamped with information, generally unable to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources and suffering from limited attention spans because of the sheer magnitude of the information. Think about that: We have more information at hand than ever before and most of us seem unable to cope with it!
Other writers, such as MIT's Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other," worry about the paradoxical isolation that we have when online. We are all by ourselves while connected to the world. This isolation can also lead to only hanging out online with those who agree with us. Intel Engineer Maria Bezaitis in a TED talk, "The Surprising Need for Strangeness," voiced concern about a willingness to conform that seems prevalent online and argues that we should embrace "strangeness" instead, because it brings analysis and creative thinking.
So, if we have all these things to worry about in the digital age, how do we deal with them while realizing all the time that in order to participate in this world, we must be connected? Powers suggests that we take "Internet Sabbaths," or regular times away from connectivity that are becoming increasingly popular.
Nick Bilton, a technology writer for The New York Times, wrote a story about a family that goes offline, "Even the Tech Elites Leave Gadgets Behind," and a followup the next day, "How To Take A Break From Your Technology." What's made clear is that even those who are deeply connected to technology are looking for a break – and a way to reconnect with other aspects of their lives.
A Contrarian View
Now that I've laid out all the negative viewpoints about the internet world, let me tell you where I stand: I believe that the internet is the most wonderful tool since man developed fire. It provides us with instant worldwide communication, access to more educational material than ever in the history of the world, unparalleled opportunities for business commerce, and has the potential for uniting the world as never before. I use the internet most waking hours. If I'm not hooked up to my Mac, PC or Chromebook for writing, teaching and other traditional uses, I'm using my iPhone for email, texting, apps, photography, and telephony, or my Kindle for reading, or my iPad for any or all of these tasks.
It would be easy to say that I have such involvement because technology has been my career for over 50 years, but it’s more than that. To me, technology is exciting. I can't get over the opportunity to learn more at the stroke of a key. And I don’t think that most of us need time outs. Instead, I think we need intelligent time, or time spent in focused pursuit of something specific online; the ability to get something of value online that we could not get easily – or get at all – offline.
The reality is that we need more and more information to be productive citizens of the 21st century. The internet is the best way to get it. But we need balance in our use of it. We must be its masters and not its slaves. We also need to work together to address the aforementioned problems it may pose for employment – and for our personal lives. We need to deal with the challenges presented by this marvelous evolving technology to receive maximum benefit from it. Those are real challenges, but I think they're ones we can overcome. Heck, it might just be the internet that helps us figure it all out.