It seems like every major event in the world is now connected to, if not passing directly through the internet. It is impossible to talk about the grassroots efforts and demonstrations that toppled Egypt's Hosni Mubarak after 40 years in power without talking about the Web.
Twitter, once maligned as a jabber wacky online tool, is becoming a veritable news gathering source, as more and more journalists recognize its reach. While a reporter packs, gets on a plane and flies half way around the world to cover a story, a citizen journalist or just someone who happens to have internet access can stun the world with photographic, video and textual documentation of breaking news.
As the internet evolves, some writers and scholars have become preoccupied with its effect on society. Adam Gopnik in this week's New Yorker separated those studying internet communications into three camps: Never Betters, Better Nevers and the Ever Wasers -- those who think this is a process that's always occurring and there should be no fuzz around it. The new book by Professor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, shares the wary watch of the Better Nevers, arguing that online communication and so-called constant networking is changing people's priorities.
A New York Times review of the book explains, "In these pages, she takes a considerably darker view, arguing that our new technologies -- including e-mail messages, Facebook postings, Skype exchanges, role-playing games, Internet bulletin boards and robots -- have made convenience and control a priority while diminishing the expectations we have of other human beings."
I would argue that convenience and control have always been priorities. It's just that now we have a tool that lets us satisfy them. Technology does not so much as change our priorities as much as it emphasizes them.
It's true that a child who grows up spending his entire free time online will likely suffer from social anxiety. But so would a child who spends all his summer breaks indoors paging through the 1,000 greatest books in English literature.
To say that the internet turns people into loners would be slander against this passive technology. It's all in a how you use a thing. Technologies are tools and as such they can be used in the service of improvement or decadence. Assignment responsibility to a tool for its results is like saying "the knife made me stab him." To get a clearer idea of the situation, we must ask "what is the intent?"
It seems more likely that people who use the internet to isolate themselves from others would be people who had done so in real life as well. They would be people who are disinclined to interact face to face. In fact, it could be argued that internet is helping them pry the jaws of their isolation open by creating a comfort zone -- they can communicate with people in a way that suits them and with the freedom to shut down the conversation when it is no longer wanted. I do not mean to make an apologie for hermits. Medical research has documented the drawbacks of isolation.
However, if the hermit wants to come out of seclusion, internet can be a first contact until he can fully embrace (pun intended) people.
I remember once a fellow university student complaining on Facebook about how he felt depersonalized online -- being reduced to just a few lists: music I like, movies I like, etc. It is true that for someone who is unsure of who they are it will be difficult to publish personal information online. This experience may heighten insecurities about his lack of identity. But the same holds true for face-to-face communication. If you are unsure of your personality or your desires, you will end up "creating a self" that you hope will make the right impression.
Social technology tools emphasizes our priorities by giving us more choices. Online communication tools are not an anathema to former modes of communication. It's just one more way of interacting. As long as humans continue to find it valuable to interact in person, so it will be. When the TV became popular, there were screams that radio was over. But NPR alone has more than 20 million listeners a week.
It is tempting to remove the element of choice and say that the technology is changing us when one tool renders another obsolete. For example, air travel has displaced the cruise as the most common form of transportation across the Atlantic because it is faster and cheaper. But such a change does not happen because it is inevitable. It happens because humans tend to follow their desires. It happens because the new tool does what we want and it does it better.