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THE WEB OF ???

Oh, what a tangled web we weave!
- Sir Walter Scott (exclamation point mine)
 
A recent Intelligence Squared debate which discussed whether our smart technology is making us dumb set a record for audience voting. Evidently this is a topic many people find interesting and relevant. As you may have guessed, the results were pretty matched. Forty-seven percent believe computers make the user dumb (probably because we become over-reliant on our devices and forget how to do things which once seemed second nature, like simple math), and 43% don't think so, while 10% are undecided.

These results were pretty similar to the vote before the debate, meaning the debaters, two on either side of the motion, failed to argue convincingly for or against, or rather each side argued as convincingly as the other. Or maybe people are so on the fence about the issue that nothing short of your computer coming to life and blowing your brains out will prove definitive. Hopefully that day never comes. 
 
So I decided to explore the topic myself. Which gives me the cherished opportunity to plumb my own personal history for prurient if relevant tidbits that are of interest to nobody else but me.

The influence of the Internet is felt in every walk of life. Relationships with people and books and other things are all touched by electronics in some way. We are exposed to the media like never before. Tech occupies our leisure hours, blurring the lines between work and play. The argument over technology's ultimate utility is not new. It has gone on with cars and TV and probably gas and electricity. You've heard it. It’s not the tool but how you use it. And there are many research books on the effects of Internet and technology. Check out the work of Nicholas Carr. This is not that. It's just my story. 
 
Let me preface my remarks by saying I know how this will turn out. I am a realist with optimistic leanings, which means I think everything is for a reason and tends to the ultimate good. I'm not an idealist. I don't think we live in Liebniz's best of all possible worlds (to read a fun parody, check out Candide, it's free!) but this world is ours so we best make do.

I graduated high school in 1991, before the Internet hit. By the time I earned my college degree four years later, the 'Net was used by very few and hardly a household name. I logged on with that recognizable-sounding if obsolete dial-up connection the autumn after graduating UCLA. But for a couple years my Internet use was limited and sporadic. I was the person at the zoo watching the exotic animal play on my computer screen in utter stupefaction and not getting too close lest I get bit. 1998 was when I got my first email address - thanks Yahoo! - while staying in Brazil with a French artist who was online every single day. Ew, how advanced! By the time I got back home, logging on had become a daily habit for me as well.

The first difference I noted in my personal life was in the realm of work. (If work means doing something for free and often while intoxicated, which was once my "working" definition for writing.) Before the Internet I had written screenplays. To submit them to agencies, I got my hands on a list of Writers' Guild signatories and mailed out letters, on paper, with stamps. The so-called snail mail. Some even use this route today. One out of 20 agencies responded and eventually passed on my script.

In 1998 I had written my first novel and since by this time I was "surfing the Web" every day I obtained a list of agencies online, and using my new email address sent out electronic queries. I sent maybe 200 in all, and got 10 responses. Same ratio as with snail mail. More acceptances, and rejections. The novel did not sell.

And then in the realm of romance. I did fine before going online. Lost my virginity at 17 (relatively late among some of my peers, but at least I was still in my teens), had my first serious girlfriend in college. The online revolution hit only when as a college grad I had entered the very foreign realm of adult dating. I found it hard to meet girls, so I tried my hat online in 1999, with match.com. Basically just looking to hook up.

And I did hook up, once. But for the one hook-up there were hours spent browsing for Betties, and several frustrating first dates, some of them aborted or cut short, and most of them involving me going out of my way to do what I really wasn't interested in doing - with a stranger. Like going rollerblading. And driving all the way out to Anaheim to see the Angels, who were in last place. And that one time at the karaoke bar. Crash and burn. Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" will never be the same for me.

During this time I also went the old fashioned route, approaching girls at bars and car washes and supermarkets, even while driving. A real pick-up artist, I know. And these impromptu efforts always met with greater success. Recently I tried the online dating thing again, once again with little to show for the attempt. I spent hours looking at profiles to only connect with two people. One girl I went to high school with, though we never spoke. The other I had actually dated a decade and a half ago. We met up, had sex. Much better back in the day. You know what they say, things end for a reason and you can never go back.

Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation fame recently wrote an interesting piece on online dating for Time Magazine (basically to profile his new book on the subject). As even your grandma could tell you, online dating is on the rise. Still, most people meet their significant other through friends. (If you're gay or lesbian and in search of Mr. or Ms. right, then chances are you will go online.) But for those of us who don't have any friends, I guess there's always the produce section. Hey, it works better than you think.
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But there is more to the Internet than trying to hook up. I am reasonably tech savvy. I can restore my computer to a prior setting, look things up online with relative efficiency. I can buy things and pay bills and work this primitive blog. I’ve been on Facebook and Twitter but stopped seeing the point, so. . . I check email several times a day, which is too much considering that nobody writes me. I got a cell phone in 2006 when Blackberrys were the shizzle but never upgraded to the iPhone. And I still don't have a smart phone, and would never take a job that required me to carry one - there's no putting a price on freedom, or its loss - so I am not on the Internet unless I'm writing at my desk, which is as little as I let myself get away with. Instead, I read a lot of books. 

When books stores still existed, I’d visit one (usually Borders, by my house) without a definite idea of what I wanted. I'd browse for an hour or two. Only half the time would I come away with a book. Other times I’d buy one, or as many as a half dozen. With Amazon, and reader recommendations, I always come away with a what I'm looking for, even when it's nothing in particular. Initially the process was so easy I bought many books I never read.

But now with Kindle, and books delivered wirelessly, and many for free, I’m much better at reading what I buy, unless it is for free. Then I just add it to my library and scarce give it the time of day. Which sucks, but there is so much for free. And not just self-published stuff, which authors usually charge too much for. Public domain works include celebrated and classical authors dating back thousands of years. At your fingertips, did I mention for free? Reading philosophy and metaphysics and old novels has certainly increased my knowledge. So much for Borders. It's now a Ross.

And buying stuff is easier. Not to have to go out for the bottle of milk and a loaf of bread is nice. I don’t consume either. In my case it’s a bottle of stevia and a jar of cocoa powder. But delivery is free, and the items cost less than if I went to the store (maybe because they save on retail fees?). I have also bought running apparel and other athletic gear this way, and usually been satisfied. Amazon sells everything, and if you're not satisfied, will take it all back and thank you for it.
 
I don’t play games online, nor do I watch shows. I used to have a Netflix account. Certainly much more convenient than visiting Blockbuster. Remember those? Whether watching more movies is something I should be proud of is another topic.

As a writer the Internet could be saving grace or dead end. I have made money writing for websites, but not much, and the writing got old and stale rather quick. There are only so many times you can write about potassium in foods. The Internet has made it possible for me to publish books, which I have done, and which hardly anyone has read. Same for my blog. I once reconnected with a friend online who commissioned me to co-write a book with him. I got paid. The book never sold. My friend disappeared.

Speaking of connecting with friends. Instantly I can check up on virtually anyone I've ever known as far back as I can remember (kindergarten). And I have. Still, I spend my days isolated and alone.
 
I have been exposed to a lot I otherwise wouldn’t. And I don’t mean just YouTube cat videos. Kettlebell, for instance. For a long time hoisting a 70-lb bowling ball dummy over my head was my idea of a good time. Then I tweaked my shoulder. It still bothers me today.

If I have a question an answer is a few clicks away. Before there was the Encyclopedia Britannica looming on the den bookshelf that could have fulfilled my curiosity. And often did, and for many writers far greater than I. Now there's Wikipedia, which I began using in 2007.
 
People seem so distracted. My father’s always grasping his smart phone, looking things up. Meanwhile his memory is failing him and he looks perpetually concerned. We could say a lot about what the web has done to our powers of memory and the depth at which we read, but for this I refer you to the debate I mentioned.

There is easier access to formerly forbidden material, like nudie pics. Many of these are of celebrities. Look at the haunches on Jennifer Lawrence. But if you do you should be ashamed, is what she says. I don't feel ashamed for looking at it or for sharing it here. She is a vision.


If you are underage close your eyes, but keep reading. Question: is surfing free porn a luxury or merely another temptation to keep at bay? Does any image compare with what the imagination can generate? No. Unless it's J La (I call her that) but then only maybe. Okay fine, yes!

Of course there's the music fix. A real deal for me in med school, where I could instantly download my favorite songs, and for free. I used bearshare.com and wound up with a crippling virus. In med school I needed lots of heavy metal to keep me engaged in the learning process and help vent my frustrations at having to study an inhuman amount of hours. Metal and moonshine. But blasting Motorhead and Megadeth eventually became hard on my ears, and now I hardly listen to music at all. Although when I do, there's something supremely comforting about knowing that "World Destruction" is only a web page away.

I wonder: Is running barefoot a reaction to the complexity that the Internet has wrought? I read about running barefoot in a book I discovered on the Internet and bought online. How fitting.

I guess the Internet's ultimate good (or evil) is about what place we assign it in our lives, and even then it's a mixed bag. The car is a good thing if it allows you to access a higher paying job 50 miles away, but to get paid you must sit in traffic 90 minutes each way.

Tools (like cars and computers) don't have a mind of their own. They do what you tell them. For now at least, and then only sometimes. Cliches remind us of this. Double-edged sword that cuts both ways. A knife in a chef's hand chops vegetables to nourish the mind. In Hannibal's hands it fillets brains. The Internet is the same. But the difference is most people don't know how sharp a knife it can be. It's seemed all good till relatively recently.

Yes, being online makes paying bills, doing taxes, checking in with friends and communicating over long distances easier. It makes shopping easier, as well as the impulse buy, which may not be so good. And booking a flight to the exotic locale? To think in the pre-Expedia days I used to go through a travel agent. How passe! I spent 2013 travelling and competing in endurance events. I found out about all the races via the Internet. One month I'm riding 50-plus miles through the hills of Lake Tahoe, the next I'm running a marathon in Maui. Only in the 21st century! Thanks, World Wide Web.

But the familiar site of the person walking down the street buried in his smart phone is emblematic of how addictive our connectivity has become. And as scientists have shown, to record something is to experience it less fully. Saving the moment takes you out of the moment. And let's be real, you'll never look at that pic again.


Nothing so overwhelming and addictive can be good. Water nourishes life. Too much, you drown. Fire warms. Allowed to blaze untamed, it'll burn your house down.

Fortunately, parents are now limiting their kids' time online, and adults are realizing that incessant accessibility makes for an easily-distracted and irritable person. And polls have come out that smart phones do not make life easier for their user. How you use your computer and phone, or let them use you, says much about you, and whether connectivity is ultimately pro or con. You can watch kitty porn all day or read the classics for free. It's the anything in between that's so complicating, if interesting.

I can't imagine experiencing adolescence in today's world. What did I do with my spare time as a boy? Watch TV and play video games, mainly. What do kids do today? Watch shows and play video games. Okay, not much has changed. But my parents' generation . . . they didn't even have TV, so they read, or drew, or invented games, like strewing cornflakes on the living room carpet then roller skating them to sugary dust - much to my grandparents' irate dismay. Kids will be kids in any age.

Today it may be hard to imagine a world without the Internet. Write checks and use the postal service? How last century! Unless you're my mother. But this is because the Internet has subsumed other options. We got along perfectly fine without it. Maybe life was better in some ways, as dinner table conversation probably was before TV.

In a world where the Internet exists, being online is the best option by far. But without it, other alternatives arise. Thousands of years of history prove this. In a world without cars you might not go as far, but with less traffic and smog and more exercise, the going would be much more enjoyable.

Like cars, the Internet is likely here to stay. Whether that is a good thing or not is up to the individual (you) to decide - while you still have the brain cells to do so. Just be sure to put this blog on the plus side.

 

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