Oh, neat. Time for another round of pearl-clutchy terror about the deadly effects of the internet. This incarnation comes courtesy of Newsweek, which asks, "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" I don't know, Newsweek—is it!? I know I feel pretty close to a psychotic break every time a commenter tells me to eat less/exercise more, and based on that anecdotal survey of 1, the internet is 100% driving us mad! Panic! Panic! Panic!
Now that we all live inside the internet all day all night, it's becoming clear that this shit is great and this shit is terrible. But, in my opinion—and the internet makes me borderline homicidal on a daily basis—the great outweighs the terrible to such a degree that this entire conversation feel like a debate on the devilish influence of sarsaparilla. To its credit, Tony Dokoupil's Newsweek piece acknowledges that this type of anti-internet handwringing is commonplace and often misdirected. (Also, Tony Dokoupil's glamour shot—haaaaaaaaaay.) And some of the statistics and anecdotal data that Dokoupil cites are troubling—specifically this:
[Results] link Internet addiction to "structural abnormalities in gray matter," namely shrinkage of 10 to 20 percent in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information. And worse, the shrinkage never stopped: the more time online, the more the brain showed signs of "atrophy."
"What I learned in high school," a kid named Stan told Turkle, "was profiles, profiles, profiles; how to make a me."
Now, obviously I hate the idea that my brain is shrinking and wilting and becoming meme-shaped; and my heart breaks at the realization that modern teens have to be on display in front of the mean girls 24/7. Those are problems that seem graspable, and hopefully fixable. But the rest of the article goes right off the deep end:
"This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change."
NO. IT'S NOT.
...says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford University who is working on a book about how digital culture is rewiring us-and not for the better. "We could create the most wonderful world for our kids but that's not going to happen if we're in denial and people sleepwalk into these technologies and end up glassy-eyed zombies."
"Mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text," she told the American Psychological Association last summer. "A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely."
And most strikingly:
"The computer is like electronic cocaine."
The babies will be okay. I mean, sure, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole with this cray-cray analogy...
Ways that the internet is like cocaine:
1. It's addictive.
2. It's expensive.
3. It's fun.
4. It makes you stay up late.
5. It makes you terrible.
6. It makes everyone terrible.
7. It makes people think shit is hilarious that is actually stupid.
8. It makes people say whatever is on their mind, even if it's abusive or self-destructive.
Sounds pretty compelling! I guess the internet is exactly like cocaine, and we probably should make the internet illegal (make sure to punish black people twice as hard as white people for using the illegal internet!). But it starts to fall apart when you look at it like this...
Ways that the internet isn't like cocaine:
1. Nobody ever sold the transmission from their car for a bump of 56k.
2. The internet is the best thing ever.
I mean, if cocaine were a conduit to unlimited downloadable music, or if cocaine allowed millions of people to go to college who otherwise would be trapped in poverty, or if cocaine allowed political dissidents to communicate with the international media in real-time in the midst of revolution, then not only would I do ALL THE COCAINE, I would lobby to put cocaine in every household on earth. "Kids these days" are always doing some self-destructive thing or another. And you can find anecdotal correlations—there's a mountain of them in Dokoupil's article—to support all kinds of sinister internet-induced afflictions. Depression. Anxiety. Isolation. ADHD. OCD. Death-by-bloodclot.
But the difference between cutting-edge technology and some stupid drug analogy is that the positive effects of the internet just might add up to saving the world.
My overwhelming feeling when I read articles like this is...how old are you? Like, I'm pretty sure this is the 76th draft of this study, and the original was called "The Internet Is Like Tincture of Laudanum." Every major cultural shift throughout history has sent intellectuals into similar fits of frenzied hand-wringing. And all of those—all of them—have since become as bland and commonplace as graham crackers.
Major cultural shifts that inspired frenzied hand-wringing:
1. All of them.
3. The great Mr. Graham's Crackers Congressional Debate of 1814.
If we go with the analogy that the internet is like a drug, negative side effects and all, then we ought to concede that we will eventually build up a tolerance to it. We're humans. We adapt. And maybe, thanks to the internet, our brains will change forever and atrophy in certain places and quicken in others and we'll have new, different, internet brains. And for a while there will be people out there who "hate technology" and never adapt and they will have weird old-fashioned non-internet brains and we will kind of look at them askance and we probably won't ask for their opinion on stuff except in quaint evening news human-interest stories. Those people will be called "old people" and then they will die. RIP.
The internet is progress. To not allow us to build up that tolerance is to stand in the way of progress. And when you look at history as a whole, people who have taken a stand against progress have never been remembered very fondly. So if you need me, I'll be over here getting fucked up on the future.
"Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" [Newsweek]
Image by Jim Cooke.