Monday, July 13, 2009
Logging On to the Future
I’m sure it will surprise you all to learn that I spend a lot of my time online. I like a good wi-fi connection the way some people like a pair of shoes – sturdy, dependable, and on all the time. I know it’s not exactly particularly cool, or intellectual, or stylish, but I have a hard time feeling bad about my technophilia. Not only are the Interwebs fun, informative, and nearly free, in all aspects of life: it’s the way of the future.
For example: email is free, whereas the quant-but-antiquated Postal Service is nearly fifty cents for a single page. That doesn’t even cover the monetary cost of all the man-hours involved, or the carbon cost of all the jet fuel, paper, and mail cars that get letters maybe across the world or maybe just down the block – in a matter of days, not seconds. I’m all for a little nostalgia, sending letters and such, but you can’t exactly rationalize riding a horse to work when the rest of the world has moved on past cars to light-rail. Nothing displays just how behind the times the US government is than the hard-copy tax booklets it mails out, or the paperwork it requires be mailed in if a taxpayer won’t pay to use a private company to submit tax information online. Michelle Obama’s White House website is pretty, glossy, and informative, but some of the money from that advertising-driven web design should have gone into updating the less glamorous facets of the government her husband was elected to run. Compare that spiffy layout to the dour, user-unfriendly set-up over at the IRS. Even though some forms are available online, you still have to print them out on paper, fill them out by hand, and snail-mail them for processing. Which is more important: Americans knowing what's growing in the White House veggie garden, or Americans knowing how to correctly navigate the labrynthine tax system? Email and online submissions isn’t disrespectful and informal; email is a greener, faster, cheaper, safer,easier, better way (for the sender, the recipient, and the planet) to communicate and get things done.
I do most of my socializing online. I am usually far away from the people I care about, and web-based services like Facebook and Skype help me keep in touch across the miles. Facebook is a free social-networking site that allows users to share info, pictures, leave messages for friends, and instant-message friends who are online. It eliminates the need for invitations to gatherings with its ‘events’ function, and it tells you when all of your friends’ birthdays are without you even having to enter the dates. Users often complain about the addictive qualities of the site, but there are worse addictions: time spent on Facebook is essentially time spent learning about your friends. It’s true that what you’re learning is what they want you to learn, but it’s better to site alone in your house connected to something and someone than connected to nothing but your own selfish thoughts. Skype is a free international online calling and video-calling service. Not only can you talk to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere around the world for free (usually), you can actually see his or her face. It’s free, it’s easy to use, you don’t have to search for bars around your house, and you can show your friend in Russia what your new cat looks like. These are just two services the Internet provides; others like YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and Blogger offer many opportunities for learning and connection that no one had even dreamed of until less than my young lifetime ago. The importance of the 140-character updates on the Iran election that came to the attention of the world via Twitter display just how powerful these sites – often criticized as dumb fads as quick and trendy as The Backstreet Boys – have real power and world importance.
Dissenters often criticize that the Internet allows a person to change, hide, or alter who they “really are” in real life (called “IRL” by we techno-hermit types). I counter that no one know who anyone “really is” in face-to-face communication, either. The Internet affords you the opportunity to be your best self: you have time to think about your reaction before saying it, in email or even message conversations. There’s no blubbering, no stuttering, fewer awkward silences and social faux pas. I, for example, am infinitely more eloquent in a textual conversation than I could ever be in a verbal one. It is in a different format, these conversations, but it is still my words. The honest person is still honest in cyberspace. The people who want to hide or alter or change how they appear do so, IRL or otherwise. (Anyway, Photoshop for an online appearance is much better for self and society than actual plastic surgery.)
I am by no means suggesting the Internet replace real-life encounters. It will be a while before a computer can measure up to a warm hug from a real-live, present friend. But I’m getting increasingly more surprised and incredulous at the too-lazy-to-be-Luddites who don’t like computers, don’t support Internet communication, who think the Internet is for bespectacled nerds with no friends. The people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to not check email, which is instantaneous, for weeks, yet still walk down the block to check their mailbox for landfill-mucking pamphlets that take an eternity to arrive, and can’t just be deleted but have to be shredded, recycled, or disposed of elsewhere to take up time, space, and money are living far, far in a past that shouldn’t be revived. In a world where even still color photographs, house-bound cordless telephones, and desktop computers seem increasingly obsolete, the future – of entertainment, of advertising, of socialization, of education – lies on the tangled, turgid, ever-changing Web of, yes, some lies, but also of information and friendship and many, many things that are nothing other than good and true and real.
This blog was written at the request of the digitally-inclined Cameron. Thanks for the suggestion, and thanks to all for reading.