December 1, 2010

"The internet made a big hit down at the Rotary Club one recent luncheon."


NPR’s Talk of the Nation recently rebroadcast a 1993 “Science Friday” show about the exciting possibilities of the internet. It’s a remarkable look at the foreignness, naivety, and prescience of our recent past. A few notable quotes from the show:

1. “The Internet made a big hit down at the Rotary Club one recent luncheon. I was called about an hour before the meeting and tabbed to do the sunshine report, a guest introduction that must include good, clean jokes. Of course, I didn’t have any jokes. So…Internet to the rescue! I sat down at the terminal and called up to find text on humor. I had a complete archive of jokes in a matter of hours.”

2. “You can find jokes. You can find Shakespeare. You can even find useful information.”

3. “I remember I was using the Internet and I looked for something on orchids and I got a response from Australia. It just blew me away… It was just unbelievable.”

4. “We’re starting to become good friends with people we’ve never physically met!”

5. Pat from central Wisconsin: “I’m so excited. I have to tell you, I look on this kind of technology as being the opportunity to end the geographic isolation that people like myself feel, you know, in rural areas, where sometimes you don’t go out for months, you know?… I think this is media of the people. And one of the new things that I hope this technology can do is really redesign government. I see an enormous potential there.”

In an era where we take the internet for granted, it’s good to remember how isolated so many people were without it. As for reforming the government… well, unfortunately Pat might have been right about that too (as Sarah Palin‘s Twitter account threatens to usher in a new reign of idiocy).

In a show mostly dominated by blithe optimism, host Ira Flatow raised some pointed concerns about the newfangled technology:

You’re talking to so many people around the world that it gets to be a glut of information… My father-in-law compared it to the sorcerer’s apprentice, where all those brooms come back with all that water, you don’t ask for all that stuff, and suddenly it comes back and you don’t know what to do with it!

But Carl Malamud of The Internet Multicasting Service retorted:

On the other hand if you go into the library and say “I’ll read every single book because it’s there”–that’s a glut of information too. One of the things were learning to do is ignore information. That’s one of the most important things the internet will let you do.

Who has been proven right? Surely the internet has spawned wonders we would be hard pressed to give up. Learning about orchids from people in Australia. The delights of literary weblogs. But all that superfluity of information has clearly come with a peculiar price, as Alice Gregory‘s essay “Sad as Hell” in N+1 or Gary Shteyngart‘s tragicomic op-ed in The New York Times so poignantly attest:

With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person – solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film. And, increasingly, irrevocably, I am a stranger to books, to the long-form text, to the pleasures of leaving myself and inhabiting the free-floating consciousness of another.

Well, what do you think? Has the internet lived up to expectations? Take our MobyLives internet poll. Or explain in more length in our comments…

Are we better off with the internet?
Obviously yes. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just being nostalgic or whiny.
It’s a wonderful tool and an amazing revolution, but it’s not perfect.
New technology, same old problems.
I use it when I need too, but its hardly taken over my life.
As with most things, it depends on the user. It can be used or abused, enlightening or alienating.
Due to the internet, we have lost sight of many important aspects of life.
We are all trapped in the matrix! Wake up people!