Why the Internet's not all it's cracked up to be
Yes, it has transformed our lives. But at what cost?
San Francisco (Fortune) -- If it weren't for the Internet, you wouldn't be reading these words right now. And you've probably got all sorts of tales of your more productive, increasingly connected, better-informed life in the Internet era.
But just what if the Internet is a three-steps forward/two-steps back kind of thing?
Venture capitalist John Fisher, for example, laments the "tyranny of e-mail," the crushing responsibility of answering all the legitimate mail that busy professionals receive every day. (Never mind the crap.)
Yossi Vardi, the Israeli entrepreneur whose ICQ popularized instant messaging, says he deletes all his e-mail at the end of every day, regardess of whether he's read and dealt with it. If something is important, he reckons, the sender will contact him again.
Dave DeLong, a research fellow at MIT's AgeLab, is pondering "the paradox of increased connectedness created by the technology but an apparent decrease in the depth and 'quality' of interpersonal relationships."
Perhaps it's a generational thing. Fisher, Vardi and DeLong, all north of 40 years old, spoke at a panel I hosted at Fortune's recent Brainstorm conference in Aspen, Colo., called "Life on Digital Steroids."
Some of the younger people on the panel, like Microsoft's Gary Flake, seemed to speak a different language from the technoskeptics, a group in which I included myself, at least for the purposes of the conversation. (Important note: there's a big difference between that group, which merely questions the value of technology, and Luddites, who oppose technological change. To the best of my knowledge, we had no Luddites in the room.)
Flake positively gushed about the benefits of the Internet: the democratization of how we can do all sorts of things, the existence of an entirely new pool of information to draw from, and so on. He even attempted to coin a new term, Web 3.0, the era when each individual will have an online personal profile that pulls in everything they want from the Web and presumably screens out what they don't want.
Flake's world-of-wonder perspective arguably is the conventional wisdom, at least among the more youthful set that has never known life without the Internet. Dating naturally begins online. Meetings occur virtually. Kids don't find out what's going on in their friends' lives by running down the street; they IM each other.
But is it all good? Are online chat groups truly a suitable replacement for shooting hoops with your pals until dark? Can electronic friendships be nearly as deep as the kind that involves smiles, grimaces, pats on the back, shared meals and the occasional scuffle?
If I spend two hours today reading e-mails -- all from colleagues, friends and business contacts I already know -- am I really being more productive than if I'd gone out and spoken to someone?
These may be heresies. I'm just asking questions I think need to be asked.
Two points in this column deserve to be fleshed out a little better than they were as originally published.
First, Yossi Vardi's system for handling the tyranny of e-mail is a little more complex than I made it out to be. Here's how he describes it: "I am not physically deleting the e-mail. I am marking those which I have to deal with with a red flag, and then they just go down the inbox where I don't see them again. I know that if I want, I can find them. But most of the time I am too busy to do it, so they just disappear. But they are still on the computer." Thanks Yossi.
Second, Microsoft's Gary Flake justifiably takes issue with having been portrayed as the sole person on my panel to appear relatively unbothered by the sociological changes brought on by the Internet. Actually, his position was rather well represented. And he too sees the drawbacks of our life on digital steroids. "Of course I think hoops are better than chat groups, and physical interaction is better than virtual," he writes me. Thanks for the dialogue Gary.