14 December 2010

Things the Internet Has Killed (Part 1)

There was an interesting essay in Newsweek a couple weeks back.  It can be found in its entirety here.  (It is a photo-essay.)

The essay, in photo format, listed the following things as casualties of the internet.

1. The 9 to 5 Workday
2. The Video Store
3. Concentration
4. Civility
5. The CD
6. The Telephone Book
7. Letter Writing
8. Vacations
9. Privacy
10. Facts
11. Polaroids and other Film
12. Reference Books
13. Yearbooks
14. Peep Shows and Adult Bookstores

There's way too much here to tackle all at once, so I'll break this up into a couple (or three or four) posts.

9 to 5 Workday- This cuts both ways.  Newsweek's take is that we end up working all hours of the day, weekends, and holidays since 'the boss' can send us something via email or smartphone to which we need to respond regardless of the hour or day.  That can certainly be true, but it doesn't have to be.  Smartphones have an 'off' button, and email doesn't have to stay open on your desktop, nor do you have to carry your computer with you out to the driveway to play catch with your kids.  (If you've tried to call me on my cellphone on a Saturday or Sunday, you got to leave a message...empirical proof that smartphones don't have to stay on 24/7, in spite of what my wife thinks.

I certainly appreciate the availability of quick contact when needed.  As someone who is responsible for a facility (my college campus), a family (wife and kids), and a job (the VP and Provost who are my bosses), sometimes it is important that I be available.  On the other hand, as the boss(I'm a campus dean), I don't recall ever phoning my employees after hours unless we were going to close the campus due to weather; and I don't recall emailing anything to them after hours unless it was something for them to deal with the next day at work.  This can certainly be abused, but I try not to abuse it, and I can't say my bosses have ever abused it either.

There are also a good number of reasons why a 9 to 5 workday has become, in some ways, obsolete.  But try to convince the federal government of that fact.  (Recall George Bush's inauguration speech in January of 2005...one of the things he committed himself to do was to 'fix overtime for the private sector'.  It didn't happen.  The feds are just too big and too entrenched to fix, sometimes even if you are the president.  It's easy to make things worse (just ask Mr. Obama about that), but very hard to make them better.

The Video Store-  I'm sure you've all seen this happening.  In fact, I recall reading the prognosticators talking about how the internet would kill Blockbuster twelve or thirteen years ago, before there was much of any live streaming of movies.  Now the only thing new about this concept is trying to figure out what other related parts of our entertainment lives will be changed by the web.

I'll say more about this one when I discuss number 14 in another post.

Concentration- This one is sure to spark some debate among those who've thought about it much.  On the one hand, we have folks telling us how the internet, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are all working together to damage our brains and make us unable to relate to other people, focus on a single task for more than a few seconds, or even to think about abstract things at any depth.  On the other hand, a different set of folks is telling us that all the interaction with multimedia is keeping our brains healthier (the use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon), especially among the 70+ crowd who have finally started adopting computers and the internet, even if they still can't program their VCR (see above for why this never-learned task suddenly became a moot point).

I don't know where this one is going, but I do have some idea that it didn't start with the internet or social media.  I've had a theory for years that much of what is now called ADD/ADHD in children is simply the results of conditioning by too much television consumption.  It isn't the programs that are the problem, its the commercials. 

The average time an image stays on screen during a TV commercial is about 0.8 seconds.  Pay attention next time you have the TV on, and try to do the 'thousand and one' or the 'one mississippi' count during commercials, and you'll see what I mean.  Now, throw in thousands of those commercials, and think of the affects that this exposure has on the brains of two- and three-year-olds.  They learn to not concentrate by rote.  Parents who regularly read (yes, from a book) to their children don't seem to have nearly the trouble with attention that their counterparts who don't read to their young children.  Think about that- reading involves a child engaging her mind on a single topic for a period of time...five, ten, or even thirty minutes or more.  The imagination is used instead of sensory input, and the focus mechanism is honed and conditioned for use. 

This one will be worth watching for the near future...it should be within the next five years or so that we see any marked changes in concentration ability in teens who've been sending twelve thousand text messages a month instead of focusing on what they are doing.  That is, we should have some good evidence whether these changes are developmental (can't be easily reversed) or simply sociological (can be easily reversed).

Enough for this post...I'll pick this up in a day or two.

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