It turns out that there’s something that’s going to cause the downfall of society, and it’s not the Mayan apocalypse, not even the Rapture.
It’s the Internet.
By some chance, the majority of the essays and articles I read last night lamented how the technology in daily use now has cheapened our humor and our lives, and has made us more lonely than ever. One bemoaned the popularity of memes as a substitute for “original thought;” one blamed Facebook for making us more connected and yet more isolated; one looked at personal headphones and their proliferation (okay, that one was actually pretty balanced).
To me, it sounds like the people who complained about the invention of the radio, or of the telephone, or of the television. All of these things have moved us away from exclusively in-person communication. And all of the caterwauling by people afraid of change did basically squat to stop it.
Listen, folks. Technology is a tool that allows transmission of what it is that we as human beings want to do and want to consume. We develop it because we see a benefit from it. It’s not like hanging out in person is in danger of becoming some archaic pastime. And if people have a hard time keeping themselves from checking Facebook every day, or Tweeting everything they do, well, maybe that says more about human nature than it does about this particular technology.
People like attention. People like to have other people notice what they’re doing and saying and especially to comment on it. There are now new ways of getting attention. Is it possible to maintain more shallow attachments to other people through social media and other aspects of the Internet? Sure. Does everyone? Do you have to? Does the correlation between loneliness and social media use imply causation? No, not necessarily.
But Laura, you say. What about the addictive qualities of social media? Don’t you get a nice cocktail of neurotransmitters pinging when you get a “like” or a comment and doesn’t that reinforce the behavior, like gambling or like a drug? Sure, I say. It’s something to be aware of. Moderation in all things, what what, harumph. But it’s the same kind of high you get when someone at work pays you a compliment. Humans are still driven by the same needs and drives and obsessions as always, and have to regulate them for themselves, responsibly–or to regulate on behalf of people for whom they are responsible–as always.
I’ve witnessed real, deep connections born through the Internet and I’ve also felt the need to “get off the grid” because I feel overstimulated by it. I know people who have rediscovered lost family members, connected with friends and support networks they otherwise never would have met, and even fallen in love and gotten married because of the Internet. I also know people I’ve stopped paying attention to because they constantly harp on the same subjects, both in real life and online. Facebook didn’t change these people; these are the same people with whom I went to elementary school and high school and college. Maybe Facebook just helped me to see them a little more clearly, a little more quickly.
I’m not saying that there aren’t pitfalls and drawbacks to our use of technology. Constant self-presentation, comparison to the unreal lives of other people, cyber-bullying–these can be difficult to deal with, but they stem from problems people have always faced (see Don Draper in Mad Men for the first, The Stepford Wives for the second, and any movie about childhood ever for the third). It’s up to you to use this tool for good. If you used a hammer to hit yourself or someone else instead of a nail, it wouldn’t be the hammer’s fault, even if it was a really tempting, shiny, flashy hammer. Like, a Silver Hammer. Or like Thor’s Hammer.
Bottom line is that I don’t believe people who wail about how the Internet is robbing people of empathy. Empathy is the whole reason I like the Internet. It gives me access to people and stories and inspiration and hope that I would never otherwise find. So listen, critics. You’ve got some points, but here’s my point for you:
You’re doing it wrong.