Are we becoming too dependent on the Internet?

Let’s perform a little experiment. As you read my blog –
which you would not be reading without the aid of 1) the Internet and 2) a
computer – consider how you did anything 15 years ago. Now for some of you, you
might have been in kindergarten, but I think it’s safe to say most
of us were at least in high school by this time. How did you conduct research
for a school project? How did you contact your friends? How did you look up the
number for the local pizza delivery joint or directions to the mall two towns
over?

Pretty scary, if you ask me. Wait, I have to use a card
catalogue? What’s an address book? You expect me to read and understand one of those
giant 2’x3’ fold-out maps? The thought of so much extra manual labor is terrifying. And the
funny thing is that these technologies so quickly worked their way into our
lives that we now find them indispensable. Today, most of us carry mini-computers with us everywhere we go. Even if we don’t use them for such a
purpose, most cell phones now are web-enabled. Many of us have Blackberries
for our jobs and are expected to be
available and connected 24 hours a day. Even the new iPod Touch offers web
connectivity for those of us who want everything the iPone offers but refuse to
switch our contracts to AT&T.

While I tend to think about this quite often (and usually stop thinking about it quickly because of its implications), I was sent a video today that made me realize life did exist pre-1997 (when I officially got an AOL account). It’s a video of what "24" may have been like if it were made in 1994.

 

Besides the obvious humor value, this poses some serious questions regarding our dependence on technology. While I certainly don’t believe that some catastrophe could/will happen that sets us back technologically by decades, we can still consider if in its attempt to make life easier for us, technology is actually making us dumber. Take, for example, the glories of Microsoft Word’s spellcheck/grammar-check functionality. Because of this technology that attempts to reduce errors, we are now (in my opinion) raising a generation of children who neither know how to spell properly nor how to properly punctuate a sentence. Or take the example of cell phones: who needs to memorize phone numbers anymore when they’re all stored in your phone? Well, as many of us have probably realized, this becomes a big problem when your phone battery unexpectedly dies and the only number you can remember is your parents’ house.

These concerns may not keep me up at night, but they do make me worry about the next generation of Internet users, kids who have known nothing but a world where you can find anything you want with a few clicks on a keyboard. I fear these kids may grow up lacking a lot of practical street sense they would have otherwise learned had they not become completely reliant on the Internet.

Or, to look at the problem from another angle, we can look at if people are choosing virtual worlds over the real world. I know I am on a computer a lot. Between my job, schoolwork and pleasure, I am often on a computer for 10-12 hours a day and sometimes more. But what about playing an online game for 50 hours straight? Or being forced to attend a 12-day bootcamp for Internet addiction? Is this the direction we’re heading, a world of people who communicate solely through virtual means, an end to face-to-face interaction as we know it?

Maybe I’m overreacting. (I do tend to do that, usually because it’s more exciting than reality.) But sometimes it is a good idea to step back from whichever new technology you’re using and consider how you once performed that task before that technology was around. And it’s probably a good idea to keep some of these skills and knowledge honed, even if technology can usually take care of them for you. Otherwise, we might all have the sentence structure of Isaac from the Real World, who left this intriguing note on a recent episode (interpret as you will):

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Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.