Digital Ambivalence

I’ve read all of the responses to the 2010 Edge Question: Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? I thought it would be fun to answer the question with an essay of my own.  Without further adieu, here is that essay.

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Before I can offer any speculation as to “how” the Internet is changing the way I think I must first wax epistemic and answer a seemingly simpler question: Is it possible for me to know if the Internet is changing the way I think? It’s not likely, but then again, how would I know? Now back to the original question; I don’t believe the Internet is, on any physiologically fundamental level, changing the way I think. What it is doing, however, is changing what I think of it, in both positive and negative fashions. I suppose I feel a sense of digital ambivalence towards the Internet. Allow me to explain why.

The Internet is, for the most part, a wonderful tool for sharing. Never before have the masses had access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, nor have the masses been able to add to the world’s knowledge base. An unfortunate by-product of the unrestricted ability to share knowledge is the similar ability to share faux-knowledge as well. An important question thus arises: Does the amount of knowledge now available on the Web benefit our world more than the cost of all the faux-knowledge? Time will tell.

In my opinion, social media is certainly one of the more interesting phenomena on the Web. Again, it offers many wonderful advantages that I cannot deny; however, it comes with many ills I can’t ignore either. Through social media I’ve been able to communicate with brilliant and interesting people from all over the world, some of which I’ve met face-to-face as a direct result of social media.  My experiences in doing that have been nothing but positive. There are, however, aspects of social media I dislike; namely, that there is too much “noise”. Anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter has certainly experienced similar frustrations when they see their feed clogged up with non-sense. Interestingly, I’ve found that most of the noise is created by people I actually knew in the past, but have not seen in almost a decade. Perhaps there was a good reason as to why I was no longer connected to them before the advent of social media. What I’ve come to realize is that one of the most important skills in the Digital Age is learning how to efficiently navigate through the “noise” on the Web. I’m continuing to work on and hone personal strategies.

Addressing the issue of our very humanity, I must ask: What does it mean to be human in the Digital Age? I think anyone with even an inkling of an addictive personality has discovered that information can be an addictive substance. I know I sure have. I don’t, however, necessarily consider the fact that I like to read academic research, articles, essays, and blogs a vice, although within certain contexts it certainly can be. Like other addictive substances, information can be dangerous in toxic doses. This, however, seems to be a problem with the human users and not the technology itself. I think Aristotle, if he were alive, would agree that the skill of phronēsis (practical wisdom) is more important than ever in today’s digital world.

Many people have argued that the Internet is robbing us of our human essence. In some ways I think there is at least a grain of truth to that claim. Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones many people are expected to be available for work calls and email at all times of the day. I think this is largely a cultural issue, but nonetheless, it is an ugly abuse of technology.

Many people are also spooked by the idea of the Singularity. This, in my opinion, is committing an act of technological hubris. The Internet is a powerful tool, but it can’t think for itself. What makes the Internet powerful are the people who use it and it’s easy to forget that.

I’ll leave it to the reader to ruminate further over their own digital ambivalence.