From the Actrix Online Informer August 2010

When good net turns bad

by Rob Zorn

Few could argue that the Internet hasn't had an enormously beneficial impact on the way we live and interact with each other. By going online we can can have face-to-face conversations with people on the other side of the world and access a plethora of information from recipe ideas to breaking news stories. We can even catch a replay of the big game we missed because the in-laws came over for dinner.

But as useful and as valuable as the Internet might be, there are some who argue the Internet also has a dark side.

Dr Susan Blackmore, a Psychology Professor at the University of West England, says the Internet is making us dumb and that governments' drive to incorporate the Internet into education just makes children mentally lazy. How? By encouraging them to rely on the single click of a button for information.

While some might argue that Google is one of the most practical and influential tools of our generation, Dr Blackmore and a number of respected intellectuals, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner, say Google is “dumbing down” this generation and the next by preventing them from mentally retaining information. Instead of memorising important information, we are relying on Google and the Internet to remember it all for us.

Others argue that the Internet offers us too much information and overloads us, making it nearly impossible for us to distinguish the useful stuff we read from the worthless. Have you ever tried to leave Wikipedia after reading just a single article? Every page has an overabundance of hyperlinks that whisk you away to other pages, and it’s not long until you’ve forgotten what you came to look up. Personal experience of Wikipedia leaves me with nothing more than a wasted hour and a seemingly infinite amount of open tabs on my Internet explorer. But how much of this information that we read do we actually retain?

Further questions are raised, especially with sources like Wikipedia, about the quality of information found online, and whether we should be retaining the information we read at there all! We have all heard the warning not to believe everything we read on the Internet. Wikipedia, being an open source site which allows anyone’s contribution, has been known to contain less-than-accurate information that could mislead the gullible and the ignorant into believing Elvis is still alive or that David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century.

Just as we need to be wary of what we take from the Internet, we need to be careful about what we put on the Internet. Just ask record-breaking Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps who nearly lost millions of dollars in sponsorships after a photo was uploaded of him smoking marijuana.

Then there's John Sawers, who nearly lost his job as head of the British Secret Intelligence Service after his wife posted photos and personal information about them on Facebook.

A quick Google search will give you a whole list of anecdotes about people losing jobs and court cases over information posted on Facebook. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81 percent of divorce cases in the past five years have included evidence from social networking sites. Some cases have even been determined according to evidence pulled from Facebook or Twitter.

And one thing many Facebook users are unaware of is that by uploading a photo to your account, you waive all ownership rights over that photo to Facebook, who are legally allowed to keep it and use it as they see fit. So a word of warning: always read the fine print and get to know privacy settings. You could save yourself some embarrassment.

Another negative implication of social networking, some say, is the effect it can have on our “real” social lives. They say a number of problems can occur when we're communicating using vehicles like Facebook. Comments are more spontaneous and less thoughtful, humour and sarcasm are more likely to be misunderstood, and excessive users run the risk of forgetting social etiquette.

These problems could have an impact on our everyday lives by causing degradation of conversation, misunderstandings, and ruined friendships. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield goes so far as to argue that social networking websites might even be responsible for "short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity."

However valid these detrimental aspects of the Internet are to our intellectual health and social adequacy, the Internet is not going to change, except to get more "Internetty". As technology develops and new phases and fads come and go, we will continually have people reminding us of the hazards we face every time we Google, wiki, F-Book and tweet. And we'd be silly if didn't at least listen.

But before the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater and someone organises an Internet boycott, consider this: In January 2010, American Dan Woolley was trapped when his hotel collapsed around him during the Haiti earthquakes. Paramedics couldn’t get to him, so he used his iPhone to download a medical application that showed him how to diagnose and treat his injuries. He was rescued 65 hours later and made a full recovery, all thanks to the Internet.


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