If you went back through the whole of human history, for the most part you’d find people living in poverty and ignorance under one sort of tyranny or another. Travel was difficult, disease was rampant, wealth was sparse, scientific advances were slow and uneven, and parents had little reason to think their children would have a better life than they did.
This really started to change, at least in the parts of the world you’d want to live in, less than 150 years ago. Many of the life-altering inventions that we take for granted today were invented during that very limited time period. Just to give you a few examples, here are the years when the following inventions first became mainstream enough to be acquired by 75% of American households: radio – 1937, refrigerator – 1948, television – 1955, telephone – 1957, automobile – 1960, and the VCR – 1992. The Internet just hit that same magic mark in 2007 and the ramifications of that may be more serious than we realize.
That’s not to say the Internet is a bad thing. To the contrary, every person reading this column could reel off a plethora of great things about the Internet: connecting friends across the world, cheaper communication via email and Skype, new business opportunities, games, MP3s, internet dating, file trading, social networking, streaming movies, Amazon, Google, eBay, Craigslist — it goes on and on.
The thing is, everyone seems to be able to tell you about what makes the Internet great, but the ways that it negatively impacts us seem to be slipping under everyone’s radar. That’s not shocking if you think about it. How long do you think it took the public at large to catch on to the hazards of drunk driving, drive-by shootings, and the Fast and the Furious series? The same thing could be said for the Internet, except it’s so new we have very little data to study.
1) Pornography: As long as people who’ve had the ability to create visual images, pornography has been around. So, it’s certainly not new. What the Internet has done, however, is make porn easy to obtain privately, free, and so omnipresent that it’s unavoidable — not that very many people seem to be avoiding it. “Seventy percent of American men ages 18–34 view Internet pornography once a month.” Moreover, one study of porn at the University of Montreal failed right out of the block because the researchers couldn’t find any man who’d never seen porn. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. All it takes is an unfiltered Google Search, reading through emails from some of your wilder friends, or even just surfing around the web. Sooner or later, you’re going to hit porn.
So what are the consequences of having a generation of Americans who’ve viewed more porn than any other civilization in human history? We really don’t know yet. However, there are a few things we do know. Porn leads to increased sexual deviancy, a tendency to objectify women, a reduced desire to find a partner, and a deadening of libido towards the flesh-and-blood women that are in front of you. So even if you set aside the idea that “porn is morally wrong,” there’s still a lot of bad that comes out of the Internet being flooded with the stuff.
2) A coarsened culture: Saying the Internet is rude is like saying that the Mariana Trench is deep. It’s not hard to figure out why. You have people from all over the world interacting with people they’ll never meet, under the cover of anonymity, with little chance for anyone to effectively retaliate or determine their identity. Combine this with the legions of mentally ill trolls and people with no social skills that you’re forced to interact with and talking with other human beings on the Internet becomes a trip through a primal cesspool full of stupidity and vulgarity.
If that were all there is to it, it would be bad enough. However, when people behave a particular way on the Internet, it often changes their behavior and causes it to leak over to the “real world,” too. People are ruder in general than they used to be, television is cruder, columns are more bombastic, and people’s interactions with each other generally feature far less politeness, manners, and dignity than before the Internet existed.
3) Time-waster, concentration-breaker, short-term-attention maker: According to Nielsen, the average Internet user spends 68 hours a month online. That’s a stunning number, particularly when you consider that the average length of time that a web page was viewed was 57 seconds.
Of course, who has time to dawdle on a web page when there are so many social networks to visit? I’m on Facebook, Twitter (here and here), G+ and, of course, I get emails. All total, I have roughly 85,000 “friends” across all the websites and receive about 150 plus emails in an average day. Honestly, I have seriously considered dropping off these social networking websites because they’re such huge time-wasters and concentration-breakers that it’s debatable whether any of ‘em are worth it. I wonder how many other people feel the same way but feel compelled to have the accounts because so many of their friends do, too?
Additionally, ask yourself: If people are spending 68 hours a month on the Internet, undoubtedly mostly engaged in non-productive activities, what were they doing with that time 20 years ago? Moreover, can people — who stay on a website for roughly 57 seconds at a clip, tweet 140 characters at a time, and have trouble paying attention to a YouTube video that goes over 2 minutes in length — handle long, complex detailed information? Are we turning into a fast food, slogan-based shallow country because the Internet is breaking our concentration and getting us used to only handling small fun bits of information at a time? The scary thing is that it seems very plausible, but we really don’t know for sure.
4) The rise of conspiracy theorists: The Internet has allowed people to bypass the media “gatekeepers” to acquire information. For the most part, this is a good thing. However, it causes a lot of harm when it comes to conspiracy theories.
If there’s a market for anything, somebody will step up to provide the demand. There are a lot of people who are interested in conspiracy theories; so whether they buy into it or not, there are lots of websites that will write about conspiracy theories. The websites tend to link back and forth to each other as well. Meanwhile, the saner media tends to deal with conspiracy theories the same way it always did by ignoring them.
So, when someone hears that George Bush let 9/11 happen on purpose, that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, that George Bush wants to merge America, Canada, and Mexico into one big North American Union, or that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry want to turn America into a theocracy — and he heads to the Internet to research it, what he’ll generally find are dozens of articles pushing the conspiracy theory and very few giving the opposite point of view.
If you want to know why these wacky conspiracy theories seem to spread so far, so fast these days, you can thank the Internet for it.
5) Dramatically increased press bias: At a minimum, the press in this country has been slanted to the Left for the last few decades. Yet and still, a good faith effort was at least made to give the APPEARANCE of objectivity. Over the last decade or so, the bias has become much more evident as the mainstream media has become much more openly liberal. Sure, the press still gives lip service to being unbiased, but even the people saying it don’t really believe it anymore.
Why is that? Well, the rise of the left-wing blogosphere is largely responsible. How can that be? Well, first of all, studies have consistently shown that liberals outnumber conservatives roughly 4-to-1 and those liberals quite naturally are going to spend a lot more time reading liberal blogs than conservative blogs.
So, as you’d expect, these liberal journalists mine left-wing blogs for stories and the truth of the matter is, there’s not a major left-wing blog in existence that has any qualms about running stories the writers know are untrue as long as a target is a conservative. In addition, liberal blogs are, quite naturally, extremely partisan. There is nothing negative you can say about a conservative that will trouble them. If you’re a liberal in the media, just about the only things you can do to make liberal bloggers angry at you are to criticize other liberals, say nice things about conservatives, or do something that negatively impacts the liberal movement. So if you’re a liberal reporter or columnist who hammers Obama or points out when Nancy Pelosi is lying, you’re going to be savaged for it on influential blogs that you and your friends like to read. A reporter at the New York Times could not care less what Right Wing News or Instapundit says about him, but it’s much more likely to matter a great deal to him if Daily Kos, Crooks And Liars, or The Raw Story writes a post trashing him. This pressure tends to slant coverage.
In fact, it has been so effective that almost every major story is now covered differently based primarily on whether a Republican or a Democrat is involved. You really can’t take any political story at face value in papers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, or the Washington Post and the Internet is to thank for it.