The Internet makes you stupid

I dare ya, I double dare ya mother fuckerI’ve been thinking lately on my online patterns of behaviour. I spend a lot of time online. I work in IT, and Internet is critical to the job I work in and the customers I serve. I research solutions to technical problems using various intranet and extranet resources, and have the ability to remotely log in to customer sites all over the world to perform hands on support. This week alone I have digitally “visited” sites in all six inhabited continents, managing servers as if I was sitting at the keyboard.  Outside of work, how much time I spend online depends on who you ask. I think I’m fairly restrained in my usage, and don’t feel the need to spend a great amount of time in front of the computer when I come home, since I’ve already spent 9 hours at work.

I hear about Internet addiction all the time. I’ve read interviews about people, mostly kids but sometimes those more mature, who go through a withdrawal if they’re away from their digital life for more than a few hours. The moment they wake up they’re on their computer checking Facebook or other social media sites. On the way to work they’ll be tweeting like their life depended on it. If it’s not Twitter or Facebook, it’s Texting. You’ve heard of Tennis Elbow? Try SMS Thumb for size.

It’s not until people get to work that the full cost of peoples seemingly endless appetite for distractions is realised. I must say that I don’t observe this at my own work place (hi guys!) but I know people who spend more time on Facebook than they spend on their duties when at work. Between Facebook, Twitter, Texts, Instant Messengers and emails it’s a miracle they get any work done at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the social media aspect of the Internet and often hit up Facebook at home and even at work. Unlike some people, though, I do all this in moderation. I can’t even say I really enjoy Facebook all that much, as there’s sometimes a very low signal to noise ratio.

Having said that, there are other online distractions to tempt you. I compare the Internet to a large Newsagent which has magazines on every subject you care to name. I have absolutely no interest in about 90% of the mags I find at these news stands, and there’s about 1 in a hundred I would find indispensible and would buy without thought if I had the money. Browsing the Internet is like flicking though the rest of  the “fringe” magazines, the ones that aren’t central or vital but catch your eye and pique your interest enough for you to reach out and open them up. You quickly turn the pages, skimming the titles and articles for something interesting. You look at the pictures and graphics for something attractive and meaningful. You might quickly cover the whole magazine by flicking through it in under 15 seconds but you may spend a minute skimming one or two articles which seem interesting. You never really spend the time to sit down and read the mag from cover to cover, at least not without the owner kicking you out.

So it is with the Internet. Any web page has text and pictures, and may include other rich media covering the subject at hand. But there’s also handy hyper-links to other related articles which lead on to yet other pages. Hell, even at Wikipedia you can get completely distracted from your original train of thought or research and wind up at completely unrelated articles before you can say “six degrees of Kevin Bacon“. I find myself doing this all too often.

What I have noticed is that this has effected the way I think. I’ve change the way I use my brain and how I focus on tasks. Rather than being able to focus on one particular task for any amount of time, I find that my focus switches from one task to another in rapid succession, often coming back a number of times to the same task to progress it a little more before switching to another new task. This seems normal to me now. I’m distracted by emails, phone calls, alarms and instant messages, but these are all evil necessities in being able to perform my duties. While writing this very article, I’ve checked Facebook, the current Commonwealth Games medal tally, the latest Formula 1 Grand Prix news, how F-Duct technology was developed, tonight’s TV schedule, when the next episode of Caprica will be available for download, what other movies Eric Stoltz has been in… and so on. It’s why I found it so difficult to sit through a trial when I had jury duty. There was nowhere to escape. There was no control. I had to sit there and focus on one tedious subject for a few days and it was hard.

At work I can be working on many different calls on different subjects at any one time, and I have to switch between, say, hardcore VB or C# coding to a  more artistic user interface design solution and anything in between very quickly. The range of products we have is hard to keep up with, and when you introduce new versions of these products each with new features and sometimes new bugs I find that I am swamped with too much information, too much stuff to remember.

Internet makes us (well, me, at least) think broad and shallow, rather than narrow and deep. I can’t tell whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, really. It could be argued that this is the way of things, now. To live in the 21st Century is to think fast, move from task to task, have many transient and temporary relationships as opposed to a few deep and lasting ones. It means rent rather than buy, and to be a jack of all trades and master of none. To know lots of facts and have many experiences, but to understand little and have few meaningful memories.

What do you guys think? Leave a comment if you can pull yourself away from Farmville long enough.