“Search your feelings,” Ross Douthat writes (0) in The New York Times, “you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet.”
Ok, I admit it. I was so distracted, I could barely finish this retort. Douthat is not wrong that for many, “your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.” Yes, we know it’s true. We’ve all complained about the six teenagers crammed into a restaurant booth texting each other, eyes down, instead of talking. We may even have texted our complaint to our own dinner partner.
And it gets worse. “Online life breeds narcissism, alienation (1) and depression (2),” Douthat writes, “it’s an opiate (3) for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged.” Indeed, it’s hard to argue these pathologies don’t significantly detract from the mostly uplifting internet story.
In his 2010 book “The Shallows,” Nick Carr said the internet is rewiring our brains — and not in a good way. Andrew Keen argued in his 2015 book that “The Internet Is Not The Answer.” The scientific jury is still out on just how biological the effects are, as opposed to psychological, but we all sense the building neurosis.
“Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces,” Douthat acknowledges. “But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not.”
Thus, he concludes, “we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.”
Douthat says this kind of temperance would not be like Prohibition, but we should adopt strong social norms and even some laws that discourage connectivity. We should get computers out of schools, phones out of restaurants, and “create more spaces in which internet use is illegal.” Also, we should quit assuming we should wire everything.
Some of Douthat’s behavioral suggestions make eminent sense: encourage responsible use through moderation and social norms, stigmatize online vandals, and promote modesty and tolerance. That’s pretty basic stuff, in any venue. He’s also not wrong that “computers in the classroom,” beginning in the 1990s, were not a slam-dunk success, or even helpful at all.
I’m not sure, however, that Douthat is aware of the ways we are already building defenses against soul-sucking streams and brain-blasting bits. For example, I think about the #ItCanWait (4) ad campaign, in which major mobile providers seek pledges not to text or surf the web while driving. I think of the apps that allow parents to monitor and limit the content and time children spend on digital devices (we might try these ourselves). I think of the free digital citizenship courses Common Sense Media and others offer. I think of my own 15-year old daughter, who not infrequently asks me to keep her smartphone so she can complete her homework. Her younger siblings aren’t yet so self-aware, but individuals and families are not impotent in the face of temptation.
Beyond these existing buffers, we are about to see how the internet can improve lives in the “real world,” not just through entertainment and social media. Information technologies in the coming years will revolutionize healthcare, transportation, manufacturing, and — yes — education. Newer digital technologies will blend into the background of our work, boosting productivity; reducing the cost of health care, transportation, and energy, thus bolstering the middle class; and finally delivering the rigorous, customizable, and often complementary educational services and world-class content that didn’t live up to their promise the first time around.
One dream of the internet was that truly excellent content could rise above the banalities of mass media. In many ways it has, such as the golden age of TV, constructive online communities, and unlimited choice in e-commerce. If we thought the lowest common denominator drivel of the mass culture would fade away, we were too optimistic. However, don’t you think that a civilization that built the internet can also find technological and social solutions to marginalize the Twitter trolls, weed out fake news, moderate hypertensive political warfare, and successfully punish and deter the hackers?
A culture that remembers and honors the basics can. It’s not a question of the internet but of us. Douthat might even agree.