Putting the Internet in its Place

(By Hartsook Photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. “Mary Pickford writing at desk.”)

By John Kaufman

To celebrate the 200th post on this website, I thought I’d try to put this Internet thing in the proper perspective, comparing it to all that is not the Internet, which is just about all of life and living.

We tend to make a big deal of living in a “wired society” where a person need never be parted from digital communication; how backward and deprived our ancestors were to have to submit to the drudgery of pay phones, typewriters, the U.S. Postal Service, long hours of loneliness and heavy books, we say.  We, however, are the fortunate generation, linked to constant fun and human (sort of) interaction. Someday soon someone will invent a device or chip that will allow us to live without sleeping, which, thanks to the Internet and mobile devices, many Americans have already nearly accomplished. Some people actually devote their lives to this Internet thing, and some even make an incredible amount of money with it, an incredible fact for a writer like myself.

The Internet (always capitalized like God or the names of places and people) is, of course, a substantial fact of contemporary life and a boon to certain kinds of business. But the detriments of being “online” are also substantial, if often overlooked and downplayed, especially if one is “online” for long periods of time. I won’t take the time to document all the negative physical and cognitive harm that is caused by gazing too long at glowing screens. To start, you can Google “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, an article by Nicholas Carr who put together a whole book on the subject. It seems there is a crucial difference between gathering information (which the Internet is great for) and properly consuming and considering it (which, compared to the printed page, the Internet sucks at.) A search engine is no substitute for an astute editor or teacher; left to our own devices, many of us get lost in our devices.

The Internet, if you hadn’t noticed, is also a fragile and risky thing.  It does not have the solidity and comfort of, say, a library or bookstore.

And yet here I am typing away on this Internet thing and here you are turning to it for some sort of knowledge and/or entertainment. There is certainly an element of fun and fascination inherent in digital devices and our interconnected e-lives. There is undeniable convenience and speed and almost magical power. But the danger is, like Alice and her rabbit hole, of falling so far in you can’t easily get out, of believing that “virtual reality” is a substitute for (or even superior to) the natural reality of nature, people, things and one’s own imagination.

So to prevent Internet overload and preserve what’s left of my brain, I have four rules which I generally adhere to:

1. Do not turn on the computer until noon (or turn if off by noon) and make sure to shut down by nightfall.

2. Use a cellphone only for necessary calls.

3. Admire people who do not use digital devices at all and are generally happy about it.

4. Remember that the Internet is not a place or even a “cloud.” Being in real places with real people (or in contemplative solitude) is still what makes people most happy.