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The Internet is Not Garbage


Time for the other side of the coin.

I promise that this isn’t a complete retraction or reconsideration of yesterday’s sentiments. I fully intended to follow up with the opposite view today. Let’s get on with it!

As I mentioned, the Internet really has become a central part of most of our lives. In 1996, only 20 million Americans–not even 10%–had Internet access. Today, almost 90% of Americans are online. This kind of rapid progression is downright transformative. At this moment, I am surrounded by multiple Internet-enabled devices: computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, TV media sticks, ebook readers. Computers and game consoles were around 20 years ago, of course, but Internet access was a relatively new feature for computers at the time, and on consoles, it was practically nonexistent. (The first online game console–the Sega Dreamcast–wouldn’t be released until 1998.)

Just because it’s everywhere doesn’t mean it’s necessarily useful, though, right? So, what’s good about the Internet? What’s good about having a digitally connected globe?

Perhaps the most obvious are the communication options. While Facebook, as a company, is a mixed bag, the existence of such a service represents a profound change in how people stay in contact with one another. In the past, losing touch with a friend often meant never hearing from them again. Over half of Americans are on Facebook now, which means there’s a very good chance somebody you lost touch with 20 years ago can be found there. More broadly, the rise of social networking helps eliminate geographic barriers to friendship. In the past, long distance communication was accomplished by letters and telephone calls. Now, it’s easy to chat in real-time, send text messages, send photos and videos, and even have live video chats. With virtual reality headsets finally becoming a practical reality, it may be possible to have a more immersive experience in interacting with others very soon, as well. We now have more means of communication at our disposal than we seem to know what to do with.

The possibilities for collaboration and group discussion are immense, as well. While imperfect, online universities look to be here to stay, offering educational opportunities that didn’t previously exist. If one is more interested purely in learning, rather than obtaining degrees or credentials, sites like Coursera, Khan Academy, and Codecademy present an astonishing wealth of instruction and information. Without the Internet, services like these are not possible–certainly not at such scales.

Another benefit of being surrounded by Internet-enabled devices is having more options for organizing and managing your life and, if necessary, the lives of your family members. We all have things we need to remember to do, and most of us would likely benefit from more organization. We have better and better tools to accomplish this, too. Schedules are easy to create, keep track of, share, and collaborate on. Paper calendars have, for the most part, become relics or novelty items. And when part of being organized is knowing where you’re supposed to be at a particular time, the ubiquity of GPS navigation devices and software means that we can not only get to where we’re going, we can be sure we’ll arrive on time through the use of programs that route around traffic in real-time. (I must point out that this is the ideal–there are still times when this doesn’t work correctly! Given time, this is likely to become nearly infallible.)

The Internet has also enabled whole communities to form, where once were isolated individuals. It is a common argument that the Internet isolates and alienates–that retreating into the digital world keeps you from participating in the physical world, the “real” world. But, in fact, it broadens our social networks. Teens commonly use it to make new friends. Although the Internet can be a haven for hate groups and oppressive political movements, overall it has positive effects on the ways we communicate with one another:

> > * Larger core discussion networks are associated with owning a cell phone, and use of the internet for sharing digital photos and instant messaging. On average, the size of core discussion networks is 12% larger amongst cell phone users, 9% larger for those who share photos online, and 9% bigger for those who use instant messaging. * Whereas only 45% of Americans discuss important matters with someone who is not a family member, internet users are 55% more likely to have a non-kin discussion partners. * Internet users are 38% less likely to rely exclusively on their spouses/partners as discussion confidants. Those who use instant messaging are even less likely, 36% less likely than other internet users, or 59% less likely than non-internet users to rely exclusively on their spouses/partners for important matters. * Those who use the internet to upload photos to share online are 61% more likely to have discussion partners that cross political lines. * Maintaining a blog is associated with a 95% higher likelihood of having a cross-race discussion confidant. Frequent at home internet users are also 53% more likely to have a confidant of a different race.

Pew’s findings blow out of the water nearly every negative assumption about how the Internet affects people’s social behavior. Yes, groups like GamerGate exist. Stormfront exists. There are certainly hateful people on the Internet, people who are only out to sow misery. But the overall story of the Internet is one of expanded, closer social ties, more and better discussion of issues that matter to us, more engagement in our communities, and so on. In short, despite its drawbacks and bouts with negative press, the Internet has, for most of us, made life more fulfilled and enriching. It has given us opportunities and access that would not have existed a few decades ago. It allows us to form and keep closer bonds with others. A third of new marriages began as online relationships–something that was almost unheard of, even stigmatized 15-20 years ago.

It probably goes without saying that many of the benefits described here, I have enjoyed myself. There are many experiences I’ve had that simply would not have been possible in a pre-Internet era. It may not all be good news, but it’s definitely not all bad news, either. On the balance, I think we’re better off with the Internet and the constellation of ways we use it. But there’s also what I wrote about yesterday–just one sliver of the digital world’s grotesque underbelly.

What do you think? Is it worth it?

Photo by openDemocracy