Access to the Internet brings such amazing promise. But is the Internet living up to its potential, and are we using it appropriately?
The Internet offers access to specialized healthcare, regardless of location; easier access to government at every level; access to the global economy; the opportunity to get an education, even if you can't physically attend a particular campus; and the ability to connect with friends and family in real-time over great distances.
I remember when we first started using email in the Army. I was a Captain serving as an Administrative Officer for a year. My group effectively filled the role of a human resources department for the 500-man unit I was assigned to. We had computers when I first got that job, but we used them mostly as glorified word processors. They were not even connected to a network.
Then the Army rolled out email. There was great hope that it would streamline communications and reduce paperwork. Sadly, it soon became apparent that it had the opposite effect. Since it was suddenly so easy to communicate, the volume of memorandums, letters and notes exploded. Instead of reducing paperwork, electronic communications made it easy to transmit even the most mundane thought -- and so people did.
The commercialization of the Internet has had a similar impact on the rest of society. IDC estimates that by 2020, the global population will be creating 40 zettabytes (40 trillion gigabytes) of data every year. Let me help put that into perspective. A pickup truck full of books is the equivalent of about one gigabyte of data. So, in just a few years, we'll be collectively generating enough new data on the Internet to fill 40 trillion pickup trucks (if that data were printed in book form). Since our global population is now about 7.4 billion people, each person on the globe would have to have 5,405 pickup trucks full of printed books to equal the amount of new data that will be generated in 2020. That's a bunch of data.
Obviously, creation and availability of that much new data begs the question of reliability. Is it fact, opinion or fabrication? The fact that it looks authentic does not necessarily mean that it is. Or perhaps it is authentic, but incomplete. I remember reading an incomplete copy of the Mayflower Compact online. There was no mention that it had been abridged, but the meaning and purpose had been significantly altered. In the days of physically published materials, you could generally judge the reliability of the data by the reputation of the publishing house. It is much more difficult to judge what you find on the Internet. And yet, people form opinions and make decisions based on generally unsubstantiated data, rarely even considering the need to validate the information. This is disturbing.
When I was a Second Lieutenant in the Army back in the late 1980s, I received instruction on how to develop training for soldiers. One of the core premises I learned was the need to train in 20-minute blocks of time, because that was the average attention span of an adult. According to An Empirical Study of Web Use, by Weinreich, Obendorf, Herde and Mayer, published in 2015, the average attention span is now 8.25 seconds. This makes me wonder how a person who struggles to focus for more than a few seconds at a time can effectively reason through complex problems or situations.
Similarly, a recent Pew online survey, which polled 2,462 middle and high school teachers, indicates that 87% believe that digital technologies are creating "an easily distracted generation with short attention spans." Sixty-four percent of those surveyed believe that the digital technologies "do more to distract students than to help them academically." What happened? What has caused this erosion of our ability to focus?
DOMO's "Data Never Sleeps 3.0" report tells us that every minute of every day, users like 4,166,667 posts on Facebook; users like 1,736,111 Instagram photos; Netflix subscribers stream 77,160 hours of video; Apple users download 51,000 apps; and Twitter users send 347,222 tweets. Why is this a problem? A University of Gothenburg report, "Intensive mobile phone use affects young people's sleep," tells us that intensive use of mobile phones, tablets and computers is linked to stress, sleep disorders and depression. Receiving information in "soundbites" and constantly surfing just the headlines also change the way that we process information.
Abuse of digital technologies can lead to other, more serious things as well. Internet addiction is a real problem. A St. Bonaventure University study, "Internet Addiction: A New Clinical Phenomenon and Its Consequences," compares Internet addiction with an addiction to gambling in that both are impulse-control disorders. The study highlights some signs of Internet addiction which include: online affairs -- I was surprised that this made it into a clinical paper, so it must be a bigger problem than I imagined -- changes in sleep patterns, personality changes, ignoring other responsibilities, evidence of lying and a declining investment in relationships. Further, the paper states that college students are the most at-risk population to develop an addiction to the Internet because of the following contributing factors:
- Free and unlimited Internet access
- Huge blocks of unstructured time
- Newly experienced freedom from parental control
- No monitoring of what they do or say online.
This is not just a problem for college students. In a survey by Vault.com, an online analyst firm, 37% of employees admitted to surfing the web constantly while at work. The implications for lost productivity are staggering. According to a survey done by Salary.com and AOL, employee non-work-related online surfing costs employers in the US $282 billion in lost productivity every year!
Several years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Amber Case, who is a cyber anthropologist, speak. She is a very bright young lady from Portland, Ore., who studies the impact of technology on society. I was impressed by her passion for leveraging technology to enhance our lives. Her vision for how we can use smartphone apps to connect and enable ourselves to be better was inspiring. She also recognized the negative impacts of hyper-connectivity on individuals and community. She talked about how social media connects us and isolates us at the same time and how civility in communication has been eroded because of the anonymity of electronic communications.
The sad reality is that the Internet is not at fault. The questions I posed at the beginning of this article were, "Is the Internet living up to its potential and are we using it appropriately?" The Internet is like any other inanimate object. It is neither good nor bad; it is how we use it that matters. Coffee is good for you if used in moderation. If abused, it can have serious consequences to your wellbeing. The problems we are experiencing with the Internet are our fault. We have become enamored with our ability to connect; we have become obsessed as a society. Putting boundaries in place can help correct the problem.
Dell's website suggests these healthy Internet habits:
Set rules for Internet use: A good set of rules should include things like the amount of time kids are allowed to be online, what types of content are appropriate and whom it's okay to chat with, as well as proper online conduct and good Internet citizenship.
Balance time online: Model a healthy balance between your online and offline activities.
Distinguish between fact and opinion: Teach your family how the Internet works, and encourage critical thinking. Train them to use a variety of online resources and to always check, question and verify what they see online.
Keep personal facts private: Ensure that you understand the risks involved in making private or personal information public online. Discuss and evaluate online relationships as you would any other relationship in your life.
Case predicted that we would either learn to put healthy limits on our use of the Internet, or we would not survive as a society. Since it is my business to connect people to the Internet, I am hopeful that we apply a healthy, responsible and measured approach to its use and realize the incredible benefits that it promises.
— Joseph Franell, General Manager and CEO, Eastern Oregon Telecom