I felt a gleeful pride being the first of my friends to own an iPod. I remember where I was when I watched with envy the teaser for the original iPhone. For years the digital cyberspace and all things tech captivated my mind.
Now I wonder if it’s all a mistake.
From a utilitarian perspective, of course, the vast network of connected devices is a success — it has democratized knowledge, facilitated expansions of freedom and centralized complex information.
Indeed, from the perch of Jeremy Bentham and his pals, the internet casts a rosy hue over its nascent history. Fake news and anonymous extremism are but small blemishes. What’s an offensive tweet or a live-broadcast suicide compared to billions of human beings who have the world at their fingertips?
But those blemishes are getting harder to ignore. Child pornography lines the circuits of innumerable servers. The dark net brings life-ending drugs into the United States and puts money in the hands of foreign criminals. The New Zealand shooting was essentially a mass murder produced for, not because of, the internet. How much longer before these blemishes overtake the shining vista?
For more than three decades the internet has been free to explore its own capabilities, and we have realized, perhaps too late, that those capabilities are nearly limitless.
Now it’s time to move out of the exploration phase and into a period of refinement.
The refinement phase should be a chance to perfect the best and ditch the worst. It’s what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls a movement for limits. We need more stringent privacy laws, for starters, so that consumers have explicit control over what gets shared and who can see it.
It may also be a good time to accept that nothing online is free. We pay for services whether we see the money leave our bank account or not. Collecting and selling private data has proven both a lucrative and frightening business model, and I’d rather pay each month to use Google if it means I don’t get ads trying to sell me a subscription razor service because somehow it knows I just ran out of blades.
Moreover, the private sector needs leaders and thinkers who care less about limitless opportunity — innovating simply because they have money and time on their hands — and have sense enough to consider the long game and its consequences.
Take learning in the classroom. When the Facebook-backed software Summit Learning came to underfunded, small-town Kansas schools, parents threw it a welcome party. Now, students sit in silence, transfixed on their screens, while navigating the self-guided modules. Some complain of hand cramps; others have headaches. One parent said, “We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies.” The subsequent rebellions against the heralded system feel appropriate.
This refinement should be as much individual as it is general. The latest Deseret News Ten Today survey finds a population dismayed at how much it lets technology persuade it. The number of Americans who say they spend too much time on their phones has tripled since 2012. Many of us can’t intentionally put away our devices for more than a few hours. This should be a time to refine ourselves and be deliberate in our technology use.
Taking a digital sabbath, as Deseret News reporter Jennifer Graham suggests, could work for some. Others may find peace by removing the more superfluous devices and subscriptions from their homes. Killing home access to the internet led one minimalist writer to say his home feels more like a sanctuary.
Whatever the action, the principle remains the same. I, for instance, who succumb too frequently to the allure of the screen, am writing this column by hand. No, it hasn’t led me to nirvana, but at least it’s an intentional step to becoming master of my technology.9 comments on this story
Maybe, as Douthat puts it, we just need less internet. Dropping it altogether would work as well as putting faith in Biosphere 2, which is to say it’s wholly impractical. But removing our pretense that the web is a panacea for all our modern shortcomings would be a good start to rectifying our errors.
Our mistake in breathing life into the internet was that of ignorance, which by itself is no crime. No one knew what it would or could become. But now we know, and ignorance gives way to knowledge. To act well on that knowledge is our next great task.