How does the Internet change the way I think? It puts me in the present tense. It's as if my cognitive resources are shifted from my hard drive to my RAM. That which is happening right now is valued, and everything in the past or future becomes less relevant.
The Internet pushes us all toward the immediate. The now. Every inquiry is to be answered right away, and every fact or idea is only as fresh as the time it takes to refresh a page.
And as a result, speaking for myself, the Internet makes me mean. Resentful. Short-fused. Reactionary.
I feel it when I'm wading through a stack of emails, keeping up with an endless Twitter feed, accepting Facebook "friends" from a past I prefer not to remember, or making myself available on the Web to readers to whom I should feel grateful â€” but instead feel obligated. And it's not a matter of what any of these folks might want me to do, but when. They want it now.
This is not a bias of the Internet itself, but of the way it has changed from an opt-in activity to an "always on" condition of my life. The bias of medium was never towards real-time activity, but towards time shifting. Unix, the operating system of the Net, doesn't work in real time. It sits and waits for human commands. Likewise, early Internet forums and bulletin boards were discussions users returned to at their convenience. I dropped in the conversation, then came back the next evening or next week to see how it had developed. I took the time to consider what I might say â€” to contemplate someone else's response. An Internet exchange was only as rich as the amount of time I allowed to pass between posts.
Once the Internet changed from a resource at my desk into an appendage chirping from my pocket and vibrating on my thigh, however, the value of depth was replaced by that of immediacy masquerading as relevancy. This is why Google is changing itself from a search engine to a "live" search engine, why email devolved to SMS and blogs devolved to tweets. It's why schoolchildren can no longer engage in linear arguments, why narrative structure collapsed into reality TV, why and why almost no one can engage in meaningful dialogue about long-term global issues. It creates an environment where a few incriminating emails between scientists generate so more news than our much slower but more significant climate crisis.
It's as if the relentless demand of networks for me to be everywhere, all the time, denies me access to the moment in which I am really living. And it is this sense of disconnection â€” more than distraction, multi-tasking, or long-distance engagement â€” that makes the Internet so aggravating.
In some senses, this was the goal of those who developed the computers and networks on which we depend today. Technology visionaries such as Vannevar Bush and James Licklider sought to develop machines that could do our remembering for us. Computers would free us from the tyranny of the past â€” as well as the horrors of World War II â€” allowing us to forget everything and devote our minds to solving the problems of today. The information would still be there â€” it would simply be stored out of body, in a machine.
And that may have worked had technological development leaned towards the option of living life disconnected from those machines whenever access to their memory banks was not required. Instead, I feel encouraged to use networks not just to access information, but to access other people, and to grant them access to me â€” wherever and whenever I happen to be.
This always-on approach to digital technology surrenders my nervous system rather than expanding it. Likewise, the simultaneity of information streaming towards me prevents parsing or consideration. It becomes a constant flow which must be managed, perpetually.
The now-ness of the Internet engenders impulsive, unthinking responses over considered ones, and a tendency to think of communications as a way to bark orders or fend off those of others. I want to satisfy the devices chirping and vibrating in my pockets, only to make them stop. Instead of looking at each digital conversation as an opportunity for depth, I experience them as involuntary triggers of my nervous system. Like my fellow networked humans, I now suffer the physical and emotional stresses previously associated with careers such as air traffic controllers and 911 operators.
By surrendering my natural rhythms to the immediacy of my networks, I am optimizing myself and my thinking to my technologies â€” rather than the other way around. I feel as though I speeding up, when I am actually just becoming less productive, less thoughtful, and less capable of asserting any agency over the world in which I live. The result something akin to future shock. Only in our era, it's more of a present shock.
I try to look at the positive: Our Internet-enabled emphasis on the present may have liberated us from the 20th century's dangerously compelling ideological narratives. No one â€” well, hardly anyone â€” can still be persuaded that brutal means are justified by mythological ends. And people are less likely to believe employers' and corporations' false promises of future rewards for years of loyalty now.
But, for me anyway, it has not actually brought me into greater awareness of what is going on around me. I am not approaching some Zen state of an infinite moment, completely at one with my surroundings, connected to others, and aware of myself on any fundamental level.
Rather, I am increasingly in a distracted present, where forces on the periphery are magnified and those immediately before me are ignored. My ability to create a plan â€” much less follow through on it â€” is undermined by my need to be able to improvise my way through any number of external impacts which stand to derail me at any moment. Instead of finding a stable foothold in the here and now, I end up reacting to ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands.
The Internet tells me I am thinking in real time, when what it really does, increasingly, is take away the real and take away the time.