L8R

Life in the Matrix

When I applied to be a Daily Cal columnist, I figured I should pick a topic that was relevant to the student body and about which I could, you know, say a thing or two. So after a moment’s deliberation it was clear: write about the Internet.

I’m a member of the generation that has watched the Internet grow and succeed and learn its limits and then break them. In comparison to the generation after mine, I’m a Luddite, but versus the Bieberclan/trendsetters-to-be I feel a special sense of history: a painful memory of turtle-speed web browsers, the inane celebrity news feed on AOL’s homepage, enduring three freezes to get 30 minutes of quality time online.

I remember a time when some businessmen thought customers might want to order their food online rather than see it in person and inspect it for fungus. I remember Napster’s iconoclastic arrival, the 95 Theses of music piracy, now seeming like a moot point with torrents so rampant. And, of course, I remember Myspace page upon Myspace page soaked in black backgrounds, cluttered with green text detailing the user’s cosmopolitan music taste but peculiar dislike for rap and country, completed by a picture of them standing around in their bathroom.

I am able to write about all this like it occurred 20 years ago because I know there are everyday techno-magical creations that make me toss a resigned and impressed shrug: “Well, would you look at that.”

Nothing I write will encapsulate the scope of the Internet, its webbed dimensions, its carnival-at-Harvard blend of Wikis and the Fail Blog. The truth is, the Internet is just what you make of it.

And we, as pioneers of the Internet, are in the position to make it and shape it while it is still supple and fresh, unbound by stringent laws or completely mined out by corporations for profit and data access. As the generation witnessing the initial proliferation of smartphones and tablet computers, we are setting those devices’ usage standards, which will be learned, evaluated and modified by future generations.

Simply put, we need to assess what role we’d like our powerful new digital technologies to play in each of our lives. They are so intuitive, pretty and accessible that their applications, Angry Birds for example, can consume the user’s time without the user much noticing. Sam Anderson writes in his New York Times article “Just One More Game…” that “We play (cellphone games) incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally.” We play palm-held games and fiddle with our gadgets out of nervousness, boredom and habit — at the bus stop, walking to class, at home on the couch.

In the Daily Cal op-ed “Putting the phone back on the cradle,” Nick Lee wrote that our digital addictions could reduce us to holding a “a fragmented, undisciplined method of social interaction in the real world.” This method of social interaction includes but is not limited to: not giving your full attention to your compatriots or to your own thoughts, not trusting your own knowledge (being aware that answers are only a click away), abdicating your ability to tell a funny story or describe a place you visited in favor of the YouTube and Google image evidence or even assuming that spending time on Facebook makes you a more social person by itself.

Many online and digital applications have an irresistible lure over our attention: As Anderson describes it, they “hold you in a place between conscious problem-­solving and pure intoxication.” The intoxicating aspect of digital activity makes it often difficult to describe what transpired while you were online — you might be aware you read a bunch of things but can’t name or elaborate on many of them.

It seems the digitally-integrated lifestyle can alter our sense of when we’re consciously aware and when we are not: when we are engaged with life and when we are depersonalized.

As someone who works all day in front of a computer, I know that there are really only two senses stimulated in the process: touch and sight. It’s just a not full experience to me: little physicality is involved. I only hope that as digital gadgets become more popular, they will serve as enhancements to the nondigital world and not detractors from it. Feel free to talk to me about this in person.