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being a bit of a luddite isn’t so bad after all

July 16, 2010

I guess you could say that I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite, but I never really realized how dependent I am on the internet (via my girlfriend’s computer, of course) until I recently moved and was forced to go a week without it. I literally use the internet for everything. (Ironically, I had to google ‘Luddite’ to find out what it meant after I received a letter from a good friend of mine saying, “Sorry for ruining you hippie, socialist, Luddite, Buddhist lifestyle with this newfangled phone.”)

I don’t even know how people lived before the internet. You know, the days when you found a job through a friend who knew someone who knew someone who was hiring or an ad in the classified section of the newspaper. (Do they even have those anymore?)

I mean, we found our new apartment on Craigslist, which is where I also found my job three years ago. Instead of wasting time waiting in line at the DMV to change our address, we spent five minutes doing it online. Same with USPS. I use Moviefone to see what’s playing in my area, and IMDb to see if anything’s actually worth watching. (My girlfriend won’t bother seeing anything rated under 7.0.) Anytime I need some computer/tech-related advice (which, admittedly, isn’t all that often), I head over to Icrontic. Hungry and looking for a good breakfast place in southeast PDX (that’s Portland, OR for those of you not in the know)? Yelp is good for that. (It’s also good for finding dentists.) And if I’m ever in need of a phone number, directions, to know if a word is spelled correctly or a quick education on the labour theory of value, there’s the all-knowing Google.

Yep, the internet has made my life a lot more convenient. Thanks to Facebook, I spent Christmas eating an amazing dinner and sipping on some Oban at a friend’s house instead of alone, gnawing on a veggie burger from BK (couldn’t afford to visit my family back in MI), and I never even knew their phone number. But, as I’ve also come to realize, relying so much on the internet has had it drawbacks as well.

I’ve noticed, for example, that my spelling has really gone downhill since I began relying on Google and spell check. I seem to make far more mistakes than I used to. (My theory is that my brain is using the internet like an external hard drive, dumping my vocabulary for simple HTML codes and logical fallacies to throw at people who are wrong on the internet.) I’ve noticed that my attention span has suffered as well. I tend to skim newspaper articles (when I bother to read them) way more than before, and I have trouble reading a book for more than an hour. (I used to be able to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a few days.) I even find myself getting irritated when I can’t hit ‘control F’ to find something I read a few pages back that I want to look up again.

But it hasn’t just affected my memory and attention span, it’s affected what passes for my social skills these days too. As shy as I was before, I have an even harder time interacting with people in real life social situations since discovering the world of social media, where I can take hours to perfect a witty comment from the anonymous safety of my own home (or local coffee shop); not to mention the fact that in real life, I don’t have the luxury of deleting the dumb things I say before someone has the time to read them. Plus, it’s way easier to just ‘like’ something than it is to have an actual conversation.

The good news (or the bad news depending on how you look at it) is that I’m not the only one who’s noticed these things. (I thought I’d simply crossed into ‘old geezer’ territory). Just the other day I heard a story on NPR about a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly (subtly titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) that reaches a similar conclusion. And you know what, it’s got me thinking that being a bit of a Luddite isn’t such a bad thing after all.

As convenient as technology can make our lives, I think there’s a limit to how much we can depend on it until it becomes a psychological crutch—one that we know we don’t need, but one that we’ve become so dependent on we can’t seem to function without it. Convenience is a type of pleasure, mostly in the Epicurean sense of being the absence of displeasure, and the key, I think, is to find a happy medium between technological asceticism and becoming the human equivalent of the Borg. I guess the moral of the story is that you really can have too much of a good thing; although I’m sure most people have already figured this out by now.

(A version of this post also appears as an article on Icrontic Life.)


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