Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Caught in the Web?

Every day, at work and at home, I spend a great deal of time transfixed by our computers--those inert, expensive boxes attached to a tangle of wires that clutter my life while potentially connecting me to billions of people around the world.

Twenty-five years ago, I could compose a letter to a friend and send it off in the mails, knowing that I would get a reply soon enough. The total cost of paper, pen, envelope and stamp was no more than 60 cents. I didn't need to be connected to people I didn't know. I was satisfied.

Today I can sometimes achieve super-accelerated, near-instantaneous delivery and sooner-than-soon-enough replies. But the total cost of this ability is staggering . . . hardware, software, modem, wires, internet connection . . .

Every e-mail I send or receive also involves a potential vulnerability to fraud and loss of privacy. Even if no one else tracks me, my internet service provider can access every message. In fact, as evidenced by the Great Spam Invasion, nearly everyone else in the world has access to my inbox. I am not just privy to the world community--I am virtually forced to join it.

Then there's the learning and information aspect of the Web. Today, if my seven-year-old wants to know what a hedgehog looks like, we connect to the Internet, Google the images section, and--presto!--we access hundreds of prickly animal images that satisfy her curiosity. And that's about as far as she cares to go.

The same request twenty-five years ago would lead us to our home bookshelves, where we might also find hedgehog images. We would then read about hedgehogs and learn something. Or, if the bookshelf browse proved fruitless, we would trundle off to the library and have a family learning expedition, interacting with the librarian and perhaps visiting with other patrons. Our gratification would not be instantaneous, but it would come soon enough--and it might well be more multi-dimensional.

For hundreds of millions of us, the computer has become our correspondence medium; our learning center; our memory jogger and life organizer; our entertainment center; our "community;" and our shopping mall. We regard the breakdown of our computer as a true disaster. We scramble to get it repaired as quickly as possible--or we buy a new one. We believe we can't afford to be "disconnected" for too long. If it could feed us, the computer might come to describe the boundaries of our entire existence.

I often feel deeply uneasy about the whole thing. I have a pretty good idea of what I've gained from the computer, but I'm not so clear on what I've lost. And I doubt that most people have a clear perspective on this. Studies of the effects of Internet use--those that I've seen--are contradictory. Some claim social interaction suffers while depression and feelings of isolation increase. Others claim just the opposite. In any case, studies can't tell us what we've gained or lost on an individual level, no matter how good they are.

Most days, the "joys" and advantages of the Web and the computer feel to me more like obligations. I wonder if others experience comparable feelings of ambivalence. If so, how do you deal with them? What do you think you've gained and lost via the computer? Do you see the technology as entirely positive? How do you balance your own equation, to ensure that computer use remains in its "proper place" among the other aspects of your life?

I invite your comments.