The Internet and Modernity

Reading Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked I was struck by their rebuttal of the argument put forth by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears; an argument which rings throughout the work of Putnam and other scholars: modern individuals are sad, hollow, isolated shells of humanity and modern technologies like the internet is what made this so.

Perhaps I was struck simply because this is an argument I have given so little serious attention. I am way past even considering concerns that video games make you violent, rock n’ roll leads to devil worship, or that the internet has led to the collapse of our civic infrastructure. It is interesting to consider as a factor, perhaps, to scapegoat the internet – to use Rainie and Wellman’s term – strikes me as absurd.

Rainie and Wellman argue that this “fixation on the internet” ignores “nearly a century of research showing that technological changes before the internet – planes, trains, telephones, telegraphs, and cars – neither destroyed relations and communities nor left them alone as remnants locked up in rural and urban villages.”

In defense of the internet, they point to the fact that “when asked, few people say that they, themselves, are living lives of lonely desperation.” And thus they find it wearisome  that “even with these realizations, some people – and commentators – believe that they are the exceptions and that the masses around them are lonely, isolated, and fearful.”

“There is,” they assure us, “no reason to panic.”

Perhaps what is most striking about this debate – internet: friend or foe? – is that the problem isn’t really one of the modern moment; it is more properly a problem of modernity; an era that stretches back as far as one might dare to extend the concepts of modern thought or sensibilities.

In 1854 – which is, if I’m not mistaken, before the widespread popularity of the internet – Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately; because he yearned to escape the crushing speed and pressures of modern life. 1854 modern life that is. As he famously opens Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…

A contemporary Thoreau might say the same about turning of Facebook or sticking with a flip phone; it’s a challenge of modernity not a problem of technology.

1942 Albert Camus wrote of the absurd tragedy of Sisyphus, that Greek hero who was condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” Camus, too, points to the challenge of modernity: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

From this perspective, the internet and other technologies have given us increased distraction; increased refuge from the crushing reality of the emptiness that is life.  Which is not to say without these technologies our burden would be relieved; no, we would simply find other ways of burying the truth, of hiding from the void.

The problem, then – if, indeed, there is a problem at all – cannot be laid at the feed of the internet or of specific online platforms. The challenge is much deeper and much more mundane. It is not a challenge of how we live in an ever connected world, it is a fundamental challenge of modern life: how do we live an average, daily life knowing everything that we deeply know?

How, in the words of modern youth, do we even?

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