TALK about feeling vindicated! I’m a prophet in my own land – a prophet of doom at times maybe – but if you want to honour me, feel free. Several years ago, I predicted that the internet wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and now, it seems, I could be right.
I can’t wait to get my hands on a new book just published by Atlantic Books – The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen, so that I tell the rest of you ‘I told you so’.
I don’t know how I got this gift of prophecy, but unfortunately it doesn’t work when I’m trying to predict the winning lottery numbers. I could however, have predicted the economic collapse if I hadn’t been cowed by an auctioneer who claimed that I was being totally irresponsible in suggesting that there were too many hotels being built in Limerick in the early noughties and that nearly every village in the county was being swamped by alien housing estates of gigantic proportions. But that’s all academic at this stage.
So back to the web then! I never did feel comfortable with the world wide web. When I first heard of it – God that makes me feel ancient, because there are young people surfing the net today who aren’t even aware that life existed before the web – it nearly triggered a fit of technological arachnaphobia, if there’s such a thing. It didn’t help either that I was an unapologetic Luddite. If I had my way, school kids would still be writing on slates and learning grammar and tables instead of having to keep up with the progress of Spiderman. I was so terrified of technology that once when I was invited into the cabin of an airplane, I suffered something akin to an anaphylactic shock. The plane was safe on the ground, but nevertheless I had to reverse back out of the cabin, afraid that if I turned around I’d hit off a button that would send it careering down the runway and up into the air.
Funny thing, that’s exactly how I feel about the web. I’m afraid to embrace it in case I press the wrong button.
As I said at the outset, I haven’t yet read Keen’s book, but the reviews are certainly enticing. The web, we were once told, was to be a giant step in the advance of civilisation. I remember thinking at the time that if I didn’t make some effort to get in on the act, I’d be left behind, only to emerge years and years later, shrivelled and bewildered like Rip Van Winkle. Now, it seems, I was destined to emerge shrivelled and bewildered anyway.
The world wide web promised to open up all human experience and all human knowledge to all of us. Nothing since the invention of the printing press would impact so much on so many lives. We’d never see a poor day again. What’s more, our horizons were to expand beyond our parochial, provincial and national worlds. We were to be the pioneers of the global village, members of the first real world wide community, and inheritors of the information age. You don’t have to read Keen to realise that it didn’t really turn out like that. You only have to sit in a train on a journey to Dublin to see that there is nothing more isolating than the internet when you look around and see that everyone travelling with you is in his or her own bubble, tapping a keyboard or staring at a screen or a phone, or taking selfies of themselves and their dinners, oblivious of the existence of any of their fellow passengers. As some of us have discovered, there is no place in the wide world less communicative or quite as unfriendly as the global village. It’s so far removed from real life that some people would rather have their blood supply cut off than their connection to Broadband.
But a recent survey on loneliness and isolation has discovered that people in my age group aren’t half as lonely as people in their 20s – the age group that uses the internet most and boasts of millions of Facebook friends.
I’m not even sure if the knowledge and information we can now get at a click of a mouse has done anything much for the advance of civilisation. Some of it can’t be trusted, and anyone who thinks that the road to knowledge is through the click of a mouse is an idiot in my book. According to Keen, the web has made us dumber, nastier and less cultivated. As someone who was subjected to vile abuse from an internet mob last year simply for expressing an opinion, I can only concur. Some of the same mob, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were, ironically, big supporters of freedom of speech.
The biggest disappointment with the web, however, was that it didn’t lead to El Dorado. Certainly some people did make a lot of money from the innovation, but compared to the numbers who lost out, particularly in the print media, they were very few. Most of us would have had a better chance of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The trouble is we can’t do without the internet now. As I said, there are people who will soon get a chance of running for president who have known no other life. We can’t turn back the clock and I’m sure there are lots of people who wouldn’t survive if we did. But I think we should cop on and stop regarding cyber space as the Promised Land for our hugely inflated egos. We should insist on introducing some good old-fashioned etiquette and humanity and that alone may be enough to make it a more civilising influence on all our lives. At the end of the day, it’s up to us really.