I’m just old enough to have witnessed the rise of the internet, to watch as it engulfed our culture in every way.
It all started with electronic mail. Wow, you could just dial into your modem, and 11 minutes later after it noisily connected, you could compose a message to someone and click send. It was revolutionary, changed how everyone communicated seemingly overnight. Websites were primitive and slow to reveal themselves. Graphics were pixelated. You were lucky if photos would load on a webpage if your connection was buffering, which was common.
You all know the rest of this story. “We are already cyborgs,” Elon Musk was recently quoted as saying in an interview and it’s hard to argue with that. Unless you’re off-the-grid, you are internet-dependent. You most likely get your news, TV shows, music, movies, porn, shopping, bill-paying, socializing via the internet.
As the internet blossomed, we Gen Xr’s felt like we were privy to the dawn of a new era. The excitement was palpable. The internet was going to unify us, bring us altogether, some said. Make our vast world smaller as people 1000s of miles away could Skype you in real time.
I first logged on to the world wide web in 1999 and was instantly fascinated. I taught myself to code and created websites for myself and friends. Templates for website building had yet to become a thing so it was time-consuming but I didn’t mind.
More and more, I gradually immersed myself into cyberspace. As a music nerd and musician, I was in heaven when Napster came online. I would spend hours searching for and downloading mp3s (for my own listening pleasure. Please don’t bust me, feds!). I was a member of a few music discussion lists (for Captain Beefheart, Robyn Hitchcock and Dylan, primarily). In 2000, I founded an internet based band, the Learning Lovers Project. My bandmates lived all over the U.S. and the U.K. We would lay down a track, burn it to CD as a WAV file then mail it to the next in line, who would then add their track & so on.
Hell, I even met my 2nd husband online, through Facebook-prototype site, Friendster (I would divorce him 5 years later).
I’ve been wondering lately, though – has the internet reached a tipping point? We have been witnessing, in recent years, the darkness that the internet can bring, the ills it can cast on to society. Rather than unifying us, the internet seems to be doing the opposite. People choose sides, form groups and cliques and then war with each other via the You Tube comments section, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Governments employ hackers and trolls to disrupt other country’s elections, or to sway people against certain politicians or public figures or policies. As social media companies grow larger and hungrier for dollars, we look on in horror as our personal lives and information is mined and sold to the highest bidder. Memes, once the height of online silliness, have grown a sinister underbelly, can now sometimes include harmful messaging that targets the vulnerable, encouraging children and teens to abuse others or themselves. We watch videos of thieves stealing packages from porches, of terrible car accidents from dashcams or shaky footage of police brutality, all of these serving to undermine our sense of security. As the next generation comes of age with their faces buried in iPhones will real life social skills continue to erode?
If the internet isn’t healthy, can society be?