When I was around 7 years old, I remember my older sister calling out to me from her room: “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE ANIMAL?” Not knowing what this was for, I wouldn’t be surprised if I originally said sharks or dinosaurs (>>see picture). By my sister’s suggestion, however, I ultimately settled on “puppy” instead.
My sister: “OK, now what’s your favorite number?”
Me: (getting more suspicious) “16…why? What are you doing?”
My sister: “OK – I just made you a screen name: PuppyETB16.”
And so—with this somewhat embarrassing, yet classic, “90s-kid” SN (at least it wasn’t SharkETB16)—my relationship with the Internet began. I was already obsessed with gadgety, robotic toys (Tamagotchi, Poo-Chi, Dino-Chi) and some computer games (Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, anyone?), but the Internet seemed entirely different. Young children can often tell you that a plant is alive but a rock is not, without entirely understanding how or why; it was the same with the Internet. Even though it was on a computer—an object, something that shouldn’t have been alive—it was alive. It was a game that kept playing even if you left the room; it brought messages that could come at any time; it connected you to real people, and because of that, took on a character and direction that were only partially under any one person’s control.
Back then, the Internet was all fun, and no business. For years, I used it primarily to Instant Message with my friends, and I remember being utterly confused in Middle School as to why our teachers felt we needed a “school email” to check regularly. More importantly, the Internet was still a choice then—a supplement, not a requirement.
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Needless to say, things have changed. Today, I woke up to my iPhone’s alarm, and had refreshed my email before my eyes could fully handle the sunlight. We are all expected to be constantly up-to-date, aware of the important news, on top of our (multiple) email inboxes, and connected to our friends and family. In some cases, those who are slowest to refresh their email are also those who get the last pick of office hour appointments or the latest notice that the classroom has been changed. If you don’t respond quickly enough to a friend who wants to grab dinner, they’ll go ahead and eat without you. Almost on the daily, I see people dropping food on the table and themselves as they scroll through their phone with the hand that isn’t holding the fork, people sitting in one class while preparing for another, people running into each other on the sidewalk blinded by their phones, and people forcing themselves to master the art of accomplishing normal tasks with a phone glued to the palm of their hand.
Even worse, I’m one of them. It’s no wonder I often hear of people feeling constantly and inexplicably anxious (“I feel like I should be doing something right now…”) or dissatisfied with the present and always looking forward to the next thing. We’re exposed to so much, that we seem to be losing our ability to simply exist for a second and enjoy. At the very least though, we do seem to enjoy laughing at the ways in which people are getting worse in this respect; Just ask Louie C.K., who does a great bit about people’s ridiculous attitudes towards their phones and another about how kids these days are overstimulated by technology.
I know that every generation has a tendency to believe that the technologies of their time are the most revolutionary, so I won’t claim with certainty that the social impacts of the Internet are proportionately greater than those of, say, the animal powered plough, the automobile, or the telephone. However, I can say that this transition has occurred with tremendous momentum, enough that my “back then” refers to a time just over 10 years ago. People around my age have grown up on the crest of this fast-moving technological wave. On one hand, we still have some of our best friends’ home numbers memorized, we remember the AOL dial-up tone fondly, we remember when Google and YouTube were just becoming popular, and we experienced just enough of a teenage social life before Facebook to understand what that would look like. On the other, most of our “formative years” have since been defined by online interactions and constant connection; I tried to resist facebook for a while (the same way I’ve stayed away from blogging or Twitter until now) to see whether it was useful or just a fad, but now, find it hard to imagine college life functioning without it.
To be clear, I still believe that the Internet is an incredible tool, when used to extend human capabilities. After finally leaving the school I had been at for 13 years to come to college, and after traveling to Thailand, Kenya, and Uganda the summers after my freshman and sophomore year, I have come to appreciate more and more the way the Internet allows us to stay in touch with people in a way that would not have previously been possible. However, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the way that we are now effectively obligated to remain connected, and increasingly dissatisfied with how often the social aspects of the Internet and mobile technologies are being used to replace human interactions within our grasp. Just as MIT’s Sherry Turkle argues in her TED talk, it seems like we may be sacrificing the quality of our relationships for greater quantity; LOL cannot compare to side-splitting tear-inducing laughter with your friends.
I always prefer an in-person interaction, a phone call, or video chat (in the case of friends who are farther away) to a facebook message or a text. I relish in the moments that I can spend “off the grid” at my family’s cottage in Vermont, or during the summer, when my inbox isn’t constantly being filled with new emails from school. My parents ask me, “Why don’t you just stop? Why not stop using Facebook or texting so much, if you don’t like it?” I couldn’t quite convey to them what it is like to be part of this connected world—constantly surprising, exciting, overwhelming, and demanding. Essentially, using the Internet and mobile technologies is no longer a choice, and that’s where the problems begin to arise.