Alienation and the Internet

By Will Baker

The Internet provides an amazing forum for the free exchange of ideas. Given the relatively few restrictions governing access and usage, it is the communications modal equivalent of international waters. It is my personal belief that the human potential can only be realized by the globalization of ideas. I developed this position years before the Internet came into wide spread use. And I am excited at the potential for the Internet to dramatically alter our global society for the better. However I am also troubled by the possible unintended negative consequences.

There has been much talk about the "new information age." But much less widely reported has been the notion that the internet may be responsible for furthering the fragmentation of society by alienating it’s individual users. At first this might sound like an apparent contradiction: how can something, that is on the one hand responsible for global unification by enabling the free exchange of ideas, alienate the participants?

I had a recent discussing with a friend of mine who has what he described as a "problem" with the Internet. When I questioned him further he said that he was "addicted," and has "forced" himself to go off-line. He said that he felt like an alcoholic, in that moderate use of the Internet was just not possible for him. I have not known this fellow to be given to exaggeration, therefore when he described his internet binges, when he would spend over twenty four hours on line non-stop, it gave me pause to think. He said, "the Internet isn’t real, but I was spending all my time on line, so I just had to stop." He went on to say that all of the time that he spent on line might have skewed his sense of reality, and that it made him feel lonely and depressed.

The fragmentation of society has been lamented for some time now. It seems to me that it probably began in earnest after World War II when a generation returned from doing great deeds overseas. They won the war, and by God they were going to win the peace. Automobile ownership became common place and suburbs were created. "Progress" was their mantra. So even prior to the Internet’s widespread popularity, folks were already becoming distanced from their extended families and neighbors. And when we fast-forward to today we see an almost cruel irony in that people can and often do develop on-line relationships with folks on the other side of the globe, without leaving their homes. But at the expense of the time that would have otherwise been available for involvement in other activities which might foster a sense of community in their villages, towns and cities.

Last weekend my wife and I invited our extended family to our home to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. During the celebration my young nephew spent the entire time on my computer playing a simulated war game. My brother in-law and I were chatting near by and it struck us that in generations past, his son, my nephew, would have been outside playing with his friends. But now the little fellow goes on line to play his games against his friends in cyber space. Yes the times they are a changing.

It seems to me that the Internet is a powerful tool that presents an opportunity for the advancement of the acquisition and application of knowledge. However, based on my personal experience I can understand how, as they surf the web some folks might be confronted with cognitive overload. And I can also understand how one might have his or her sense of reality distorted in the process. Is the Internet a real place? Depending upon how a "real place" is defined it might very well be. At the very least, I believe that when we use the Internet, we are forced to ask fundamental questions about how we perceive the world about us— perhaps another unintended consequence. Some would argue that the virtual existences created by some users who debate, shop, travel and have sex on line are in fact not real. While others would argue that, since in practical terms, folks are debating, shopping, travelling and having sex, the converse is true.

All of this being said, I believe that the key to realizing the potential of the Internet is in achieving balance in our lives. This would allow us to maximize it’s potential without loosing our sense of place. However like most things that is easier said than done. It seems to me that we are a society that values immediate gratification above all else, and what better place to achieve it than in cyberspace, where the cyber-world is your cyber-oyster. The widespread use of the automobile forever changed our society and culture, and perhaps a similar sort of thing is occurring now. I am not at all certain where the "information superhighway" will lead us: some say to Utopia, while others feel it’s the road to hell. But I do know that we all have the ability to maintain our sense of place in the world. Whether we choose to take advantage of this ability is another matter.

 (Essay Collection)