A Little Less Online [Opinion]

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In late May Paul Miller of The Verge detailed his visit to a rally put on by various groups of Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet. The article itself is a good read, but the video of the event is incredible. In the video Paul talks with a number of Orthodox Jews about their views on the Internet, but one man in particular, Eytan Kobre, an editor for Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly, had some particularly fascinating things to say about how the Internet should be viewed.

Ever since Paul decided to leave the Internet I’ve been questioning its own effects on me as a human. How has the Internet changed me?

What we’re looking to do here, really, is, you know, making a cost-benefit analysis. Saying, are social networking sites, are they undermining my sense of human dignity, of privacy? Are they pandering to my worst instincts when I get on the comments section of a blog, of a website? Are they turning me into something I don’t realize? – Eytan Kobre

I’m 24 years old, which makes me part of a special generation. Unlike the generation after me, I can remember a time when computers were fairly common, but the Internet didn’t exist for all intents and purposes. I can remember doing a project on the country of Russia in elementary school. We were advised to use an encyclopedia among other sources. I used an encyclopedia on my computer, but it was Encarta, not Wikipedia. If I wanted to play a video game with a friend they had to come over to my house, not login to Xbox Live.

My generation can remember a time when your computer wasn’t always connected to the Internet. To surf the web we had to dial in with our modem, which in turn tied up the phone line so that no one could call through (unless you were special and had two lines). I know what a keyword is and can give you my ASL. I can remember playing Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Quake in LAN parties and online. The future was here, but we didn’t realize how it would change the world.

High school students today probably can’t really remember a time without the Internet. They’ve grown up with constant connectivity and instant access to the world’s information. While we haven’t seen the full repercussions for our always-online lifestyle, everyone is beginning to see changes in the way we interact with each other. Phone calls are becoming rare thanks to the text message (and even text messages may be on the way out with chat solutions). Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have not only threatened the postal service but email as well.

This shift towards expecting information to be available instantly may not be a good thing for us. It’s one thing to expect instant results in a Google Search, but having those expectations can also influence our expectations in our relationships. We may only choose to interact with friends and family through social media because of the convenience and lose the nuance and genuine connection that a face-to-face conversation offers. Our demand for quick information can make us value facts instead of interactions. If I can see video and pictures from a trip and read a few of the highlights, isn’t that just as good as being there?

Recently I’ve been spending more time with family in preparation for my wedding in July. As a result, I’ve found myself checking social media less often and leaving my phone away from my person. Surprisingly, these haven’t been conscious decisions; I’ve just noticed a shift in my behavior. It may seem obvious that we should value time with loved ones more than what our phone is trying to tell us, but often our behavior suggests otherwise. We’re so quick to glance at our phone during a conversation or even unlock it unprompted just to see if something new has arrived.

I think we should ask ourselves about the cost-benefit ratio of an always-on lifestyle. Is always being tuned into the Internet making me a better person? Is it good for me as a human, or is it changing me into something I don’t want to be. Is your phone an idol that you placate every time the screen flashes or is it a tool to help keep you connected? Is keeping up on Twitter or Facebook as beneficial to you as reading a good book? Are we missing out on more of the life around us because we’re so focused on the digital life that is fighting for our attention?

We have to make decisions about how things affect us. I’m finding myself choosing to disengage with the Internet subconsciously because I would rather interact with the humans around me than read through a Twitter stream. The Internet can be an amazing tool, but it can also be a source of depravity. Maybe if you’re finding the Internet and social media taking up too much of your time you can go on a fast from the Internet or take a day off from it. Everything will still be there when you get back, and if it isn’t, you’ll have spent a day being more intentional than your phone would want you to be.

On Sunday evening I got to hold my nephew for a few minutes. While I was holding him my phone rang in my pocket. It wasn’t hard to decide which I should focus on – the child in my hands was infinitely more valuable than any distraction my phone had to offer. Every day we’re faced with little decisions about whether or not to interact with the humans around us or get sucked back into our phones. Every day we can choose to be better or worse versions of ourselves. I think we could all stand to be a little bit less online and a little more engaged with those around us.


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