The Internet: Stop I Want To Get Out (Written From A Country Where It Isn't Shut Off) by Melissa Hughes

Disclaimer: This was written prior to the Government of Egypt shutting down Internet access in an apparent bid to quash protests and access to information in that country. My feelings about the medium have not changed. The content in this piece applies strictly to spoiled North Americans living in functional democracies. Thank you for your understanding.

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You realize you have no reception on your phone. You can't read email, access Facebook, or message your friends. Maybe you are underground or maybe you are in a plane. Perhaps you are in Resolute Bay. You become antsy. You play some Brickbreaker, scroll aimlessly through old emails. You consider actually phoning someone – until you remember that won't work, either.

I had this unsettling experience while on vacation. Knowing my Blackberry would not work, I was still compelled to check it. Please note that when I say compelled, I mean physically – it was an automatic action. Remove Blackberry from purse, look at screen: Nothing. I was a hundred feet from the ocean; I could smell it, feel its fine humid mist on my skin. I found myself down in the lobby, checking email.

It would seem we're all Internet addicts nowadays. (If you don't agree, try telling people you're going to stop using the Internet – just go cold turkey – and see what kind of looks you get.) My question is, can this possibly be healthy for us, and, more pressingly, does anyone really care?

Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” documents the science behind this digital distraction. He takes readers through the concept of neuroplasticity – how our brain is continually rewiring itself based on the stimuli we expose it to. Our knowledge of this process is still in its infancy, however, one thing is certain: what we're doing online is changing what – and more importantly, how we think.

This would account for why, when I'm “unplugged,” my mind feels clearer. After just a few days my concentration improves. Ideas seem to form spontaneously, out of nothingness, as if not having a constant flow of information on tap allows time for some sort of synthesis to occur.

Would it be apocalyptic to say that in a decade’s time we might see higher incidences of attentional and sleep disorders, a waning sense of reality, and the sheer physical burden of constantly being hooked in? Or is it better to assume this is all completely safe and deal with the consequences later – sort of like cigarettes? Regardless, it's hard not to conclude that we should be moderating this inundation in some manner; unplugging if not for weeks or days at a time, for hours at least. But is that enough? And, if not, what then?

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” He posited that content is merely “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

So, we argue over whether Kim Kardashian should have posted that photo of her sister making out with someone else's boyfriend, which is more fun than, say, a discussion of whether or not the Internet itself – taken to its current extreme – is such a good thing. That's the kind of conversation that can make you unpopular at parties. But bear with me for a moment. Why does it seem like no one is debating the morality of the medium? Well, partly it’s because morality itself is painfully outmoded in thinking circles – relegated to church freaks and the tragically backwards. (Thinkers like to think of themselves as having ethics. So do corporations.) But mostly, it's because the content – and what the Internet can do – is just so damn amazing. I make myself unpopular to myself when I argue against it. And yet, I am torn: My body is telling me “the medium is the message,” in a way I never understood when I studied the theory in school. It’s almost as if I am living inside of it. I feel dizzy and sick in the head as a result, as if some fundamental disconnect with reality is underway and I am powerless to stop it.

My nostalgia for the old world order – that ancient civilization that existed all of a decade ago, where you could wander the streets unplugged and oblivious, no useless or irrelevant stuff zooming at you from all angles – is more complex than a luddite’s fear of what’s new. We all live in the land of the new, instructed from an early age that newer is better. New – especially when it comes to, say, toilets, and governments – can be better, but certainly not always.

Large-scale social movements occur when enough people look at how the world is changing and decide that it isn’t for the better. My fear is that the type of change we’re in the eye of is so fluid, so lighting fast, and so woven into the fabric of our existence that we can’t feel it as anything other than the norm. If I could equate it to a physical concept, it would be that of being velocitized: if we just stopped and really thought about it, we might feel that something isn't right.

I can find no evidence that the Internet or any of its trappings has made people safer, friendlier, more productive or more connected to reality. Knowing what's going on in the world at a faster pace doesn't mean that information is more accurate, or more beneficial to anybody.

Consider how the digital generation looks to authenticity for its reality fix. “Oh yeah, I like that place, it’s really got an authentic vibe.” As opposed to the inauthentic world in which we live? Or is it just that certain things, stylized as they are, remind us of how we ought to be? Are certain aspects of life – human connectedness, physicality – like a rock, a lighthouse that is immovable and cannot surf the bullshit wave?

The challenge of being human is one of personal adaptation: having the courage and the conviction to act as an individual. Each of us can choose where we draw the line when it comes to our level of digital immersion. (Mine seems to be Twitter.) But, if McLuhan had it right (and it seems he has that tendency), our efforts are likely wasted. The digitization of our minds is unavoidable, a simple evolutionary process that will change us so much that eventually we will be unrecognizable.

I can't help but think a sober second thought about such a radical shift might be a good thing; this is my contribution. Hey, where else would I put it?

Melissa Hughes is a Toronto-based writer whose freelance work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, and on CBC radio. She has worked as a reporter for the London Free Press and the Barrie Examiner. You can read all of her posts here and email her at


Post a Comment