A huge geo-social gorge has suddenly appeared on the nation’s political landscape, and nearly everyone is talking about it. This strange chasm unites politicians of all parties into demanding immediate action. Educators, too, have placed it high on their agenda. What is this yawning gash that must be bridged at all cost? It is a mysterious “digital divide” that separates the virtual haves and the non-digital have-nots.
As little as a year ago no one really seemed to notice. Computer have-nots scarcely realized their downtrodden state. But as elections near, candidates all over the nation are focusing on Internet access, elevating it as if it were an innate human right. It has become a trendy national imperative to try to link everyone, willing or not, to the information superhighways.
Indeed, everyone seems to be surfing on the virtual bandwagon. Some candidates are promising free laptops to all eighth-graders. Ford Motor Company is offering a computer and linkup to all its employees worldwide for a mere five dollars a month. Companies that once gave free e-mail service now offer free web access.
In the headlong rush to bridge the digital divide, everyone seems so intent on getting across. Few, however, seem to worry about what lies beyond. Like so many technological developments that enthralled the world, Internet access is often welcomed with giddy optimism.
The Internet is a sort of digital wonderland where one creates his own reality. A Nortel Networks advertisement portrays it in the words of rock guitarist Carlos Santana as “a road to a world with no borders, no boundaries, no flags, no countries. Where the heart is the only passport you carry.” In a technology measured in nano-seconds, the tendency is to point and click impulsively on the future. There seems to be little time to stop and ask what the world is going to be like once the divide is bridged and the Internet all-encompassing.
Some social scientists, however, are starting to make projections about the virtual future. They are asking questions which they say must be raised about the psychological and emotional impact of the cyber-culture on the horizon.
Researchers point to a growing number of hours spent on the Internet by all social and age categories. No longer is the medium a mere educational tool. Its amusement, shopping, and working functions have invaded the home and diminished the time people spend on real human relationships.
They note that face-to-face family and social connections are suffering. Abstract and fleeting chats and keyboard conversations simply fail to fill the emotional void in a topsy-turvy world where a living room conversation is labeled “facemail.”
An August 1998 study at Carnegie Mellon University reported that those who spent even a few hours a week on the Internet experienced higher levels of depression and loneliness.
A Lonelier Crowd
Recently, one of the first large-scale surveys of the societal impact of the Internet offered an even more sobering assessment. Political scientist Norman Nie of Stanford University claims that Internet use is creating a broad new wave of social isolation, raising the danger of an atomized world without human contact or emotion.
His analysis, published by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, was based on a survey of 4,113 Americans. It has been compared to the landmark sociological book The Lonely Crowd, written in 1950 by David Reismann with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Nie found that heavy Internet users are increasingly “home, alone, and anonymous.” They are spending less time with family and friends, attending social events, or reading and shopping. Even television viewing is declining.
In a society already hampered by poor personal communications, Nie warns, “there are going to be millions of people with very minimal human interaction.”1
Trendwatcher John Naisbitt in his 1999 book High Touch, High Tech echoes this finding when he notes that Internet technologies “can actually isolate humans from each other, from nature, and from ourselves. Technology can create physical and emotional distance and distract us from our lives.”2
A Cultural Divide
Other Internet critics fear that bridging the digital divide may only create a gaping cultural divide. They cite waning interest in cultural pursuits which require effort, skill, and talent. This contrasts sharply with the passive and effortless surfing in cyberspace.
The noble art of writing, for example, is a telling casualty of e-mail and chat rooms. These have given rise to a written sub-dialect where punctuation and capitalization are casually discarded, acronyms replace phrases, and non-verbal smiley faces abound.
Wired Style, a manual on digital English usage, advocates this development. Authors Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon openly advise e-writers: “Think blunt bursts and sentence fragments. Writing that is on-the-fly — even frantic.” Readers are further told to “appreciate unruliness” and “welcome inconsistency.” Such trends send a message that cannot but hurt deteriorating personal and social relationships. Moreover, declining reading, musical, and conversation skills point to a society that no longer values or actively participates in the more spiritual delights of the soul.
Mapping the Future
Some might object that the Internet is the wave of the future. All resistance is useless. Cultural considerations must yield to e-progress. Laggards will automatically be condemned to a non-digital Dark Ages. That is far from the case.
In fact, only fourteen percent of Europeans are connected to the web. Among the French, forty-two percent do not own, use, or intend to buy a computer, and there is a reluctance to go online. They claim that e-ties are corrosive to inter-personal relationships.
In an interview with National Public Radio, France’s Secretary of State for Industry, Chretien Pierret, says the French value a well-rounded lifestyle with its emphasis on “the human condition and the ability to achieve more equilibrium.”3 This lack of connectivity has not affected the second fastest growing economy in Europe.
Taking the Leap
Perhaps the hype around the digital divide, (if it does exist) should be treated as just that: hype. After all, forty-five percent of Americans remain unconnected — and many of these are oblivious to their “plight.”
While Internet use can provide helpful information, it is not a panacea. As recent studies have suggested, there are definite dangers on the web, especially in the all-important field of human relationships. Perhaps it would be good to look beyond the digital divide and see what lurks there before making the leap.