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

November 21, 1998*: Eleanor Rigby Surfs the Web

It is, after all, an accepted truism of modern sociology: technological society alienates; it causes us feel alone and lonely. Frankly, this is such an accepted truism that I'm not about to take the time to try and verify whether it's really still accepted by today's academics, or whether first year university students are still taught it. I certainly remember the reading lists for university classes way back when, and though perhaps the prevailing "wisdom" has changed since then, my guess is that it hasn't. I'm not sure that there's any reason that it should.

I still remember the first time I saw people walking on the street with "Walkmen" attached to their belts and earphones over their heads - it seemed to be an acceptance of alienation, a purposeful denial of the public sphere and an expression of a desire to expand the private beyond the traditional four walls of the home. Why would people want to be in a place designed for interaction yet purposely close themselves off to it?

But of course the Walkmen triumphed, and our technologies have expanded and "improved" to the point that even when we're sitting next to a stranger on a bus we don't feel uncomfortable about talking on our cellulars as though we're in the privacy of our homes. And who knows - I may simply be barking up the wrong tree: perhaps there's nothing wrong with being able to extend our homes into "public space".

So? Much too much has been written lately about the results of a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. The study examined internet usage in "average" homes, and came to the conclusion that:

Apparently this conclusion is a disturbing one, or at least a seemingly perplexing one. The title of the paper that describes the research: Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? very clearly pinpoints the "problem". Starting from an assumption that internet technologies are inherently social, the researchers expected to find an increase in psychological well-being. Robert Kraut, one of the central researchers on the study, and of the Homenet Project in general, put it this way (in the NYTimes article): A look at the "popular wisdom" on the subject, however, suggests that there's no reason to be surprised by the results. Though it seems that there are enough internet users today so that everybody is either online or knows someone who is, an attitude of "surrogate relationships" seems to prevail toward the technology, and toward excessive use of computers in general. The Crankshaft cartoon below sets the tone: human-computer communication just isn't the same as human-human communication.

Though I can't claim to have conducted an exhaustive study on the subject, this seems to be the most popular topic dealt with in cartoons that have come my way that deal with computers and the internet.

But, returning to the Walkmen metaphor, we can probably find a similar claim made about almost any technology that enters into popular usage - that it's a poor replacement for the "real" thing. Yet I doubt that those who cling to this view actually think that Eleanor Rigby was a coach potato. I think it's a fair guess that she wasn't.

But yet other questions need to be asked. Had Eleanor been online, would she still have been lonely? Perhaps she could have joined an online discussion group, maybe even taken part in an inter-church newsgroup. Even alone in her room she could have entered a chat room and perhaps have met other lonely hearts in that way. Assuming that Eleanor was physically unattractive, her positive qualities might have come through as she took part in whatever virtual communities she joined, and others could have recognized these qualities in her that they wouldn't have noticed because they were turned off by her physical appearance. We know, of course, that in the end Eleanor died. But perhaps Father McKenzie's sermon could have been posted on a memorial web site, or on a site devoted to all of his unheard sermons, and in that way it might have reached others so that someone would hear.

Ultimately, it seems to me that it's a question of the internet's promise and the only partial realization of that promise. We're offered the world at our fingertips, and yet we wait incessantly for a page to load, only to find that the information it contains is shallow and superficial. We join an online discussion group with expectations of meeting like-minded souls and discover that our correspondents are no different than our neighbors. Frankly, watching Hollywood movies makes me depressed: when the lights are out and I'm absorbed into the lives of those larger than life beautiful people I'm transcended beyond my run of the mill daily life; for the short moment that I think their life is mine hope springs eternal. In the end, of course, the lights come back on. Maybe the depression that results from internet use is no more than the lights coming back on when the modem gets shut off.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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