Is the Internet Nightmare for Social Life? Possibilities for Real Connections Are Emerging
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So if you think you aren't affected, either because it's all too space-agey, too complicated, too scary, or you're just not interested—like Helen, who grouses about cell users' rudeness and finds social media "a time drain" and "boring"—think again. Your kids, your parents, your friends, your clients, your long-lost cousins, and citizens around the world are already swimming in the digital stream. You can't stop the river. Even if you never join Facebook, never read an online newspaper, or never send another e-mail, the Internet—the steam engine of digital technology— will continue to affect you.
How? The answer is different for each of us, but playing nicely in the sandbox of cyberspace is inspiring more and more people to share and cooperate, and by all indications, this mentality is extending into other arenas of life and changing our attitudes toward one another. In neighborhoods, towns, and cities, politics, the arts, businesses, the healing professions, government agencies, charitable institutions, or any other place where cultural scripts play out, one central theme resonates: the growing and unbounded power of public engagement made possible by digital technology.
The Capture of Fire
Crunchy-granola types and top guns make for strange bedfellows, but 40 years ago, when a handful of government, technology, and military specialists conceived the Internet as a warning system against nuclear invasion, members of the counterculture took notice. John Perry Barlow, a cofounder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, went so far as to liken the Internet's potential to "the capture of fire."
One of the most influential early enthusiasts was Stewart Brand, publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, the go-to resource for everything from composting to cannabis cultivation, first published in 1968. Brand was a big fan of computers, imagining them as "an avenue to realms beyond our dreams." By the mid-'80s, he'd cofounded the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link ("the WELL"), effectively providing a conference room in cyberspace for his planetary-conscious pals.
Participation in the WELL wasn't unlike what we see today: a mixed bag of conversation, arguments, information-sharing, and support. No one could upload images or sounds back then, but it was a heady experience nonetheless. "Finding the WELL was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house," wrote journalist and educator Howard Rheingold in his 1993 book, Virtual Communities. "An entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door."
By the late '90s, those who were paying attention perceived the Internet as former CEO of Intel Andrew Grove did: "a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are all in kayaks." But the truth is, smaller waves of modernization had begun to change society's course long before. Instead of living in communities, like small villages and neighborhoods, each of us was embedded in his or her own "personal community"—a collection of local and far-flung others who met specific needs. Sociologist Barry Wellman stresses that the Internet didn't cause this shift to "networked individualism," as he calls it, but it has "reinforced, facilitated, and certainly increased the trend." With digital devices that allow 24/7 access, he adds, "we now have a lot of power at our fingertips." Like snails, we can carry our worldly connections with us, blurring the lines between private and public, leisure and work, family and career.
Early fears that we'd become a nation of loners, depressed, alienated, and zonked out in front of our computers haven't been substantiated. In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that people who have Internet access and/ or a mobile phone are likelier to have bigger, more diverse "discussion networks" than people who lack these connections. Some 40 percent of adult users are also "content producers," who shoot photos, and produce videos and music for their own and others' enjoyment, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and coauthor, with Barry Wellman, of the upcoming Networked: The New Social Operating System. Through this "creation of personal media," Rainie says, Internet users form "just-in-time-just-like-me support groups" that expand and further their personal networks.