Not long ago, browsing the Internet, I happened to stumble on a list titled, "The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time, According to the Internet." Like most lists of its kind, it was subjective and far from definitive, but still, it represented an interesting challenge. As someone who reads for pleasure as much as for job security, I decided to finish as many of the titles as I could handle.
After completing over a dozen (and taking in many of the film adaptations) the following occurred to me: Not one of these acclaimed futuristic stories—at least none of the many I was exposed to—took place in a world with any version of the Internet. All instances of published media, daily communication, romance—all offline.
In part, this has to do with the constraints of narrative writing, explains the technology writer Clive Thompson. “A lot of science fiction was primarily focused on moving people and things around in exciting ways,” he says. “These forward-thinkers were using flashy visuals to hook their readers, while understandably overlooking non-sexy things such as inaudible conversations.”
And inaudible conversations are the bread and butter of the world wide web. As Jon Stewart once put it, the Internet today “is just a world passing around notes in a classroom.”
But my experience led me to an interesting thought experiment: How might we live without the world’s largest note exchange? Or, in other words, what would the world be like today if the Internet ceased to exist?
The easiest starting point may be to just look back at life before 1990—a time of landline telephones, 9-to-5 work schedules, and VHS-rental stores. But that historical reality doesn’t really answer the question, because in an alternate history, we wouldn’t have known what we were missing. “The Internet has so permeated our lives that its influence is becoming impossible to see,” says the philosopher Clay Shirky. “Imagining today minus the Net is as content-free an exercise as imagining London in the 1840s with no steam power, New York in the 1930s with no elevators, or L.A. in the 1970s with no cars. After a while, the trellis so shapes the vine that you can’t separate the two.”
For the sake of this exercise, though, let’s try. As an example, let’s look at the life of Brian Lam, the former editorial director of the technology site Gizmodo. In 2011, Lam quit and moved to Hawaii to found the gadget-review blog The Wirecutter, a move that redefined his professional relationship to the Internet.
“As a business owner, I couldn’t do what I do today without the Internet,” Lam says. “My team and I would be forced to live in a big market, probably New York. Consequently, I’d have less access to the outdoors, no access to the global talent I currently employ, and a narrower perspective.”
But in some cases, he acknowledges, the digital age hasn’t been as kind to workers. Rather than use the Internet to offer their employees more flexibility, some employers may use it to more easily exploit them, demanding more work or longer days without paying overtime.
In addition to blurring (or obliterating) the lines between work and home life, the Internet has dramatically changed our cultural conception of patience. “Without it, we wouldn’t expect instant gratification as often as we do,” notes Michael Calore, a senior editor at Wired magazine. “Not just the ability to get an online answer immediately, or same-day delivery. Because of the Internet, the anticipation of waiting for things is largely gone.”
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When Steve Case co-founded America Online 30 years ago, just 3 percent of Americans were online (mostly academics). Before the web was invented, these early adopters spent less than an hour a week online (mostly email). Today, 85 percent of Americans use the Internet.
“We designed it to connect people with shared interests and ideas, to produce more durable offline relationships,” says Case, who’s now the CEO of the investment firm Revolution LLC. “We tried to level the playing field by reducing the cost to communicate and increasing efficiencies so that more voices and greater perspective could be found.”
How have those voices and perspectives changed, though? In a recent column in The New York Times, Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who researches online behavior, argued that having the Internet in our pocket has fundamentally altered how we form relationships. She pointed to a recent University of Michigan paper that reviewed past studies on empathy in college students, and found a 40 percent decline over 30 years, with most of the drop-off taking place after 2000.
“Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy,” Turkle wrote. “We have found ways around conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”
Lam has mixed feelings. “I wouldn’t be happy without the Internet,” he says, “but it does make me miserable at times.”
But antisocial behavior existed well before the Internet did. Thompson believes the ills of compulsive Internet use have been greatly exaggerated. “I’m not convinced it’s the epidemic it’s made out to be,” he says. “It’s called frequency illusion. In this case, seemingly obsessive phone use understandably annoys us, so we notice more than it actually occurs.”
“Truth is, we had this same argument with the telephone.” he reminds me. “That it would reduce total social encounters when, in fact, it facilitated more of them.”
Shirky, meanwhile, believes any attempt to separate the Internet from everyday life is futile. “The only credible post-Internet visions are all tied to civilizational collapse: zombie apocalypses, global pandemics, nuclear catastrophes,” he says. “The hidden message in all of those scenarios is that if the only way to convincingly imagine a world without an Internet is to imagine a world without civilization, then to a first approximation, the Internet has become our civilization.”