Mind Warp

My eyes burn, my back hurts, and I can't sleep. I'm twitchy and I can't concentrate. I snap at my friends and family if they don't talk fast enough. Nothing and no one can hold my attention for longer than 30 seconds. I would love to wax poetic about what I see for the year ahead, but I can't even figure out what I'm going to have for lunch.I blame this current sorry state of affairs on the Internet."Oh sure," you say, "it's the Internet's fault that you're a cranky pain in the ass. It's not enough that we blame the Internet for Columbine, the proliferation of pornography, PMS, global warming, the price of beans, the presidential candidates' complete lack of substance -- let's blame your personal imperfections on it, too."But I am not using the Internet as a scapegoat for my personal problems. It really did cause them.I use the Internet for hours each day as part of my job. It's an amazing research medium, and for a journalist it's an unbeatable way to keep in touch with the world, or any sub-slice of it. No matter how obscure or bizarre a thing is, there's a Web site for it. Like every reporter I know, I am infinitely more productive than I used to be thanks to the Internet and its multi-tentacled reach. (This is a reach we journalists would like to have developed on our own, using our finely honed reporting and sourcing skills, but we're too busy complaining about how much more money other, much less qualified, journalists make.) I can find out just about anything I need to know on the Internet, or at least get the phone number of someone who can tell me. In this way, the Internet is a godsend.But invaluable as it is, the Internet is a demanding mistress. It takes as well as gives.The first thing it took was my health -- my eyes are red and sore from staring into a glowing screen for hours on end. My back is tense from sitting in one position all day. Then the Internet took my already compromised power of concentration. I have lost the ability to sit down and complete a task from beginning to ... actually, if you'll hold on for just a minute, I need to check my stocks real quick.Thanks for waiting. Now, as I was saying, it has robbed me of my ability to stay focused on one thing. My eyes and brain have been programmed to look for a new image every 20 seconds or so, and that interval is growing shorter by the week. I now click through the Web, and my life, at a blistering pace, scanning a page, clicking away, constantly demanding new information, new images, new stimuli. If I don't find what I want in five seconds, it's on to the next link.I remember when the Web first caught on. I had a painfully slow modem, and I would wait -- get this -- for up to a minute for a Web page to fully appear on my screen. A whole minute. Can you imagine waiting that long for anything these days? I can't. I don't. That's the problem.For instance, I was driving to a friend's house last week, and I got stuck in one of those epic traffic jams that you can see stretching ahead of you for miles. My first reaction? I realized that the bandwidth of this particular highway was about to become dangerously congested, which would immediately stop my transfer. I double-clicked on my stick-shift knob as if it were a "Back" button. Only on my second click attempt did I realize what I was doing. I've lost it, I thought, and I began to weep silently. It wasn't for my warped mind that I wept. I just couldn't believe I'd left the house without first checking traffic.com.Several days later, I found myself in conversation with a particularly boring individual with whom I occasionally must have contact. As he droned on about something or other, I tried to remember the URL for my friend Sandy, who I knew would have much more interesting content.But it gets even more pathetic. While I was sitting at my computer last week, wondering how my friend Alan was doing in his new job, I absentmindedly typed www.alan.com into my browser and hit "Enter," searching for information on him. Just as I was gasping, horrified at my total disconnect from reality, a home page appeared on my screen for someone named Alan. The site told me everything I could have wanted to know about this Alan, including how he was doing at his job. He was not my friend, but he offered to be if I would just click on his mailto: address and send him a .pdf or .gif picture.That's when it occurred to me that my personal disconnection from the "real" world was probably just a small part of a vast unstoppable movement in the same direction. The problem, as I see it now, isn't that my brain has been re-wired, nor is the problem that I am well on my way to leaving this physical plane for a digitized landscape. The real world is the problem. Real life is slow. Real life has terrible bandwidth, and its connection is never any faster than it was yesterday, regardless of usage or what time of day you log on. Life's download speed does not improve if you turn off the graphics. You cannot change its font or its background color. You cannot click away if you do not like what you see. The service levels suck, and there is absolutely no customer support. Is it any wonder that some of us prefer to spend our time in cyberland?As more people become professionally and personally dependent upon the Internet, I predict that more and more of us will fall victim to the real-world-versus-digital-world identity crisis that I now face. What really scares me, however, is thinking about what the world will be like in 15 years, 'cause right now there are several million kids in elementary school who have been weaned on the Internet. They have learned how to access the entire world's body of knowledge in a few seconds. They have grown up making friends around the globe without leaving their seats. They've learned to click out of any discussion they aren't enjoying, or that frightens them, without so much as an "excuse me, I think I hear my mother calling." They're surfing so fast that they're leaving a wake.If you think I'm cranky, impatient, and unfocused, you ain't seen nothin' yet.Kris Frieswick is a magazine writer living in Newton, Mass. She can be reached at krisf1@gte.net.

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