Internet brings the best and worst to us
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I thought about this line by Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) in the original “Jurassic Park” movie as I toured an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art this past Sunday. The exhibition, “I Was Raised on the Internet,” encourages viewers through installations, videos, and more traditional visual art media to consider how our lives have changed over the past few decades as we’ve lived with the internet.
To say that that the internet has an omnipresent role in our world today would be stating the obvious. People seem to be always staring into their phones, retail establishments are falling by the wayside as more and more shopping is done online, and seemingly anything we wish is at our fingertips.
Much of my family’s trip to drop our younger son off at college last week was shaped by the easy access of the web. We made all of our reservations online and we bought him the necessities for his dorm room via Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s ever-so-helpful website. We used the Happy Cow app to find the best vegan restaurants in the Windy City, and we avoided the line at the Art Institute of Chicago by procuring our tickets with our phones. We used the handy CTA app to figure out which train to take to our other son’s apartment in Wrigleyville, and we caught an early morning Uber for the ride to Midway Airport. As we waited for a train in Chicago, I read a recommendation for a book on Bookbub (a site for ebooks), went to the San Antonio Public Library website, ordered the book via Libby; just like that, the book was on hold to arrive on my Kindle in the next week. To borrow from A Tale of Two Cities, we live in the best of times.
However, we cannot ignore the paradoxical nature of this moment in history. The same internet that catalyzes movements for civil rights and social justice in the United States or revolutions like the Arab Spring overseas also allows tyrannical governments to oppress their citizens. Some forms of social media offer people the opportunity to grieve with others who have experienced similar tragedies while other networking sites perpetuate falsehoods that have led to violence. At the risk of stretching the Dickens reference, while the internet can make the best of times possible, it also can bring on the worst of times.
Since DARPA begin researching the concept of an interweb in the 1960’s, we have lived with the promise and the threat of the internet. If, like me, you’re a fan of Black Mirror on Netflix, you have seen how television portrays this dual-edged sword. Some episodes have literally brought me to tears as they portray the positive power of technology to connect people in a variety of places and from different times; other shows have haunted me with their dystopian visions long after that particular installment ended.
As adults, we can remember, if vaguely, what life was like before the internet. There once was a time when we had to wait a week for the next episode of St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues, or if I really want to date myself The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If we wanted the newest Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young recording, we went to a record store and bought an album or an eight track tape because that was what available (as opposed to today’s twenty-something hipsters who have gone retro and believe that they discovered vinyl.) Remember travel agents and bank tellers, or when people in restaurants actually talked to each other?
Things are different for our children. Their entire lives have co-existed with the internet, and explaining their world without it is tantamount to the old David Foster Wallace story where one young fish says to the other “What’s water?” They literally don’t know of life before the web. We have given our children tools with great power, but they are still too young to have developed the wisdom necessary to use them responsibility. (Of course, the same could be said of many adults.)
The historian in me wonders if this was how our predecessors felt after Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, or Edison’s light bulb. Did the printed book spell the downfall of oral storytelling cultures? Certainly the telegram killed the Pony Express and light at night altered how we lived our days. Similarly, the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford gave us greater mobility than ever before, but did their creations also exacerbate the atomization of our society?
Spoiler alert! One of my favorite, albeit very sad, final movie scenes is from Barry Levinson’s Avalon (the conclusion of his Baltimore Trilogy including Diner and Tin Men.) The immediate family is having Thanksgiving dinner alone in their suburban living room eating on TV tables and mutely watching a show; their isolation stands in contrast to the boisterous, crowded and multi-generational family feasts that formed the foundation of the family earlier in the film.
As an optimist, I hope and believe that we will learn to live with our new forms of technology as other generations before us figured out how to balance the blessings and the curses. Long ago, Plato said we are social animals, and I think that holds true today. There are still some experiences that the best forms of technology cannot replicate. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant in teaching our children how to unplug, enjoy the moment, and seek out the actual and tangible experiences that will shape them. We have to guide them in developing a positive social media brand that reflects their best selves rather than succumbing to the temptations of the mob. We should remind them again and again that once something is posted, it can be seen by everyone today, tomorrow, and years in the future. They can learn from peers and adults whose lives have been irrevocably ruined by irresponsible uses of technology that hoping for the traditional definition of privacy online may be a fool’s errand, and that yes, bad things can happen to them.
Over a hundred years ago, Mary Shelley warned us in Frankenstein of what can happen when our ethics fail to keep pace with our technology. If we want our children to have lives that are productive and happy, we are duty-bound as parents and educators to help them navigate a world so potentially rich and so possibly terrifying.