Is the Internet driving us to distraction?

My father died before the computer age really began. I was a young man during that bleak winter in 1982. Imagine my guffaws if you had told me then that within 15 years, everyone would own a personal computer vastly superior to the one they used for the moon landing, and that within 30 years, the hunky beast would shrink into a tiny device called a “smart phone”? And that we would spend all of our time interacting with something called the Internet, which no one understands but nobody can live without?

As Paul Harvey might have said, what actually happened is “the rest of the story”.

Does anyone really remember the rest of the story? It comes to me in flashes:

  • When I was in college, the only computer I remember is one that took up an entire building. It counted attendance and determined who got into what class. The monster was so massive that it required special air conditioning and constant maintenance.
  • About that time, somebody said they were doing some reading about an electronic publication system where people could send articles and maybe even get paid for doing that. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. It sounded like just another scam.
  • My brother graduated with a Master’s in math and computer science, and landed a great job at a prestigious firm where they created IBM mainframe “software”. It was so complicated that we could never really discuss it.
  • After my father’s death, I bought my first “computer”. It was expensive, and difficult to use, but wow, what a device. It made a calculator seem like a toy.
  • My knowledge of computers and software grew rapidly from there. I wrote visual basic scripts to change the way Microsoft Word and Excel behaved. I designed and coded a program in Pascal that eventually ran my entire wholesale business.
  • In the 1990’s, I heard about a new communication tool where we could write electronic messages to each other — “email”. This was also when I first heard about the rush to claim domain names so you could have a public “website”. The technology was so new that it required specialists to put it all together. But it was fascinating. There was a real sense of acceleration.
  • In the spring of 2000, the Thai government unexpectedly devalued their currency, the bhat. This caused a worldwide sell-off: $3 trillion evaporated out of the stock market. The blazing-hot NASDAQ, with all of its high-tech startups, collapsed like a dying star. I was standing a bit too close to the flames; I lost my business and fell flat on my face.
  • My interest in programming had grown so much that I changed my profession and became a programmer full-time. Cell phones were still clunky and expensive, but we loved them. We started thinking that the future would be like Roy Rogers and the science fiction we had grown up on.
  • Everything since then has been a blur. The world is moving so fast that we no longer record memories the way we used to. So here we are.

Attention Deficit Disorder Is The New Normal

Where are we? For one thing, we are riding the wave of an explosive information revolution. That sounds both threatening and exciting. Until you do a search on the Internet and get hustled and lied to by people you will never meet (thankfully).

Everything I get off the Internet is chronically broken and over-hyped. Even when it’s free, it’s a bad value, because it takes too much time to manage. That’s because the only way for companies to get attention is to offer something for free. They can’t spend any real energy on it, so the thing they produce is more Internet junk. They also don’t have the time or money to support it. So they sell it through their clinched teeth and hope for the best.

So much information is now being published that no person could ever consume it. But why would the want to? To purge their stomachs? Look at the advertising for Search Engine Optimization (“SEO”) services. These companies claim that they can get your website ranked high enough to attract real traffic and maybe even hustle a few bucks for yourself. But how? Oh — they just create a bunch of dummy content packed with keywords, and have all that tie in to your website. Harmless stuff, right? Unless you use the Internet. Talk about putting a fire out with gasoline!

We have grown so accustomed to the assault on our sense by television, radio, and now the Internet, that we no longer actually feel it is worth our time to listen to any one thing with any priority or patience. It’s all garbage to our brains at this point, so the only way to cope is to give less and less energy to any one thing at one time. Doctors used to refer to this occasional malady as Attention Deficit Disorder (“ADD”). Now it’s just being alive in the 21st century.

Welcome to the Something-for-Nothing Generation

So what does the future hold for a society driven by its own impatience to get more and more out of less and less focus?

  • My father was a carpenter. I learned the trade from him, and practiced it for a decade. Who would do that today? They would want to watch a YouTube video, and go out and buy a power saw. Let’s just say that the bloody fingers will be a-flyin’. And forget about getting your door fixed.
  • Are we really getting any smarter? The only kind of material that gains traction with the public any more are viral videos, gossip, and something-for-nothing hustles. Web developers have chopped their content into bite-sized marshmallows. No one has time to study anything. So where will our real intelligence come from?
  • I bought dinner for two young women recently. One was older and quite gracious and respectful. The other was a young brat who could not stop pecking at her cell phone. Eventually I grew so irritated that I asked who she was communicating with. She claimed it was her “best friend” The problem was, they had never met.add
  • How will the next generation handle real inter-personal relationships? It’s great that you can exchange live texts with someone from Thailand. Have you read the Economist lately, to understand that country’s political turmoil? I am guessing that if your new play-mate brought up any of those unpleasant topics, you would have to “unfriend” them for making you feel guilty and thoughtless at the same time. Owie!
  • I grew up middle class. Everything in my life came directly from my parents’ efforts. That was the core ethic: we reap what we sow. Who is producing any value any more? And what will they receive in return?
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