I never wanted to write about computers or the internet because nearly everyone knows more about this subject than me.
But I also never let ignorance get in the way when I’m on to something. Besides what choice do I have? The concept of dialogue is so intertwined with the sheer presence of the internet in our times that I’d be a bigger fool not to discuss it.
Internet: bad or good?
So I will simplify, certainly not for your sake, but for mine. In the reading I’ve done about computers and the internet (they are usually discussed together), I see that there are a lot of advantages and a lot of disadvantages. And, of course, there are a lot of bright people arguing for one side or the other.
It’s also pretty early in the game to come to definitive conclusions.
But it may not be too early to say that dialogue is thwarted by computers, whether in phones, tablets or laptops, and whether accessing the internet or not.
Why write a blog about problems with the internet?
Because that is one of the benefits of the internet — the opportunity to write or produce something that can affect a lot of people.
Affect them how?
In ways that are harmful or beneficial or a mixture. Content per se is not a problem specific to our current communication technology though. Those options have been with us since civilization started.
Sure, there’s a lot of prevarication and ignorance spewing going on in cyberspace and we should work to reduce it, but we should have done that before in regular space too.
The main corrective for that is, and always has been, a well-rounded education which encourages original and comprehensive thinking. And the information is certainly available (and increasingly so) on the web to help with that process.
Other problems attributed to internet use, such as cyberbullying, on-line disinhibition, loss of privacy, hacking, physical ailments and mental and emotional problems (e.g., addiction, depression and anxiety) are essentially higher tech versions of what we had before. Hacking is a more awkward fit with bugging or breaking and entering, but you get the point.
So how does the internet harm dialogue?
For one thing, it reduces the opportunities for person-to-person conversations. Now, these have been diminishing for some time with the telephone, TV and single-person driving so one could argue that this is just a continuation of the general trend of disconnection of people in modern life.
This would still be a problem, of course, but internet use doesn’t merely continue that trend, it transforms and intensifies it.
Even when people are together, dialogue is thwarted by the use of cell phones or tablets. But as we spend ever more hours per week on our electronic devices, we are not only physically separated from others, but we start losing social skills.
Psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude is concerned that eventually people “may stop ‘needing’ or craving real social interactions because they may become foreign to us.”
Equally disturbing is the phenomenon that Jane Brody of the New York Times discusses, where heavy users, especially teenagers, “come to view the real world as fake.”
Another major concern is that the ability to focus, remember and think deeply about issues appears to decline with computer and internet use. Nicholas Carr makes a persuasive case for this in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.
At some point, society might mandate face-to-face exchanges. One coffee shop chain has recently shut off wi-fi in nine of its locations to get people to talk.
But it would be a pretty sad day, if people looking across the table from each other with no distractions, had nothing of value to say to each other.