From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 29, 2005*: Who cares?

Nine years ago, when these columns started, there seemed to be a clear separation between our daily lives and the information technologies that were beginning to have such an immense impact upon them. Back then, we went online, suggesting that at certain times we also went back offline. It was clear that for most of us, the vast majority of our time was offline, and, since the online and the offline experiences seemed to be so totally different, we called the more familiar "offline" aspect of our lives "real life". Today we seem to have reached the point at which these two aspects of our lives - the online and the offline - have become so thoroughly intermeshed that we can no longer make such a distinction - real life, if there is such a thing, to a large degree includes our online lives. As these once separate and distinguishable aspects have meshed, as we've become accustomed to part of our existence taking place online, we've discovered that what was once novel and extraordinary, has become almost second nature.

That process continues. New tools seem constantly to be pushing the envelope, seem never to cease to surprise us. They create new possibilities, new experiences. Before these tools, not only did we not expect these possibilities or experiences, we didn't even imagine them. Today, however, we've learned to expect the unexpected. Because of this, computers and information technologies no longer seem to present our lives with novel situations that may or may not have parallels in our pre-digital lives from which we can compare, or gain perspective. This isn't to say that technical developments, many of them fascinating and even breathtaking, don't continue to appear. Some of these confront us with novel situations that demand examination. But for the most part, when we consider the social ramifications of the tools we've come to know, as well as of those that continue to surprise us, we seem to already know what there is to expect. There doesn't seem to be much that still shouts out to us that something new and different is on the horizon. It's easy to get the feeling that there isn't that much in these tools that still bears intense examination.

Today almost everybody knows somebody who met his or her mate online. Dating services may have once been considered an arena for social misfits, but not today. Using a service such as this has become standard, normative behavior. Rather than being viewed as deviant, using an online dating service is seen today as perhaps more acceptable than going to singles' bars. And of course "normalcy" isn't just a factor of under what circumstances we meet other people, but of how we present ourselves. Here too, we've become quite comfortable with the idea that our online personae, rather than being a lie, a cover-up, a mask for our "real" selves, are simply additional aspects of our composite character. If in the past the novelty of having an online persona allowed us to see the internet as a sort of playground, an arena for experimentation with self (or selves), this novelty seems to have played itself out, and it seems, in the popular press at least, to have ceased to generate much interest.

Similarly, if teachers and professors once viewed "internet-based research" as an oxymoron, today students probably lose points rather than gain them by not quoting at least a couple of web-based sources. Librarians freely direct their clientele toward the web about as often as they do to the encyclopedia. Many doctors expect their patients to find information on their illnesses via the web. The terms information and internet have become so closely associated with each other that jokes about college students completing their degrees without ever reading an entire book (jokes that were never particularly funny) actually seem to have a ring of truth to them. Today, if someone tells us "I found it on the internet", we don't assume that he or she lacks advanced learning skills. Instead we might find ourselves responding, "But of course. Is there anywhere else where someone might look?".

Not too long ago, special sections of newspapers, and specialty magazines, used to cater to the outside-the-mainstream interests of those people who were logging on to the web. These special sections have to a large extent begun to disappear as the web integrates into our daily lives. In their stead, new and interesting sites dealing with art will show up in the arts section of the newspaper, sites dealing with food in the food section, and the like. It's a sign of the web growing up that today hardly anyone would expect to find these sites concentrated in a special "internet" section of the paper.

So the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives. We use it to buy books (and more), to do our banking, to keep in contact with friends, to prepare our school work. Some of us may still "use" it to experiment with our identities. It's lost its exotic aura and instead has almost become the girl next door. We think we know it, and along with that knowledge, that familiarity, comes the feeling that there's no longer much to write (or read) about it. What's more, other technologies have, to a certain extent, eclipsed the bread and butter internet basics of web searching, e-mail and hypertext that seem to most interest me. When many of us have third generation cellular phones in our pockets, and can use them for just about anything, it's hard to get excited over spending an evening at your desk sending and receiving e-mail messages, or even to understand why someone would find that a significant topic about which to write.

Almost four years ago I initiated a contest in these pages. Though I wrote that I would post the winning entries, I never made good on that promise. This was primarily due to the fact that there were close to no entries at all, making it hard to choose a winner. I think that only one reader responded, and he hinted (probably correctly) that there was something elitist in the very existence of the contest. Why, he asked, should I find anything distasteful about a McDonald's restaurant offering internet access. And of course the answer to that question is that I shouldn't. If these columns attempt to examine the integration of the internet into our daily lives, then here was incontrovertible proof of precisely that. Could it also be, however, that this success of the World Wide Web has also been its undoing? The promise of these new technologies creating something "different", giving birth to a new ethos that might emerge from them and then spread throughout the society at large, was probably untenable right from the start. But that doesn't mean that I didn't harbor such a hope. I even still do. But, in classic "nothing fails like success" fashion, the internet - at least as a tool, but perhaps also as a concept - has so thoroughly penetrated our culture, that it's ceased to be interesting.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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