Is the web taking us hostage?

Throughout the history of mankind, many were the discoveries and inventions that changed the face of the universe – the wheel, electricity, Penicillin; it’s hard to even imagine what life would be without them. Internet, which the Britons consider the fifth most important invention of all time, according to a study published last year in the Daily Telegraph, belongs to that category of inventions that have altered our lives irreversibly.

The Internet is now over 40 years old, with approximately two billion users all over the world and counting. Words like “googling” and “tweeting” have become part of our everyday vocabulary. No one can deny the importance of Internet, but just like with any other groundbreaking innovation, it comes with a list of pros and cons.

However, with the Internet particularly, it has proved to be much more complicated to draw the line between advantages and disadvantages. Simply put: yes, the Internet has completely revolutionised our lives but, overall, does it really do more good than harm?

Many things have been invented for our convenience, but the reason the world-wide web is so unique is because it encompasses countless benefits all in one. Moreover, it reaches into all areas of our lives, be it for work, leisure or entertainment.

The most obvious advantage is the amount of information the Internet provides us – it could even one day completely replace newspapers, encyclopedias and books.

Sarah Dali, 18, an International Politics student at City University, says: “I could not live without Internet now that I have found such a quick and efficient way of finding answers to my questions”. The quality of what we find online is sometimes debatable, but it’s undeniable that we now have access to virtually all knowledge available instantly.

This also applies to the new ways of communication the Internet offers. As a matter of fact, the Internet is, by definition, freely available, universal communication. Remember the days when you were excited when you got the odd phone call or a letter? Nowadays, many people will actually reply “no” to this.

The Internet brought with it numerous tools for faster communication: the e-mail, forums, social networks. And with the help of mobile devices we can now contact anyone, anywhere, whenever we want.

The Internet has also developed into an embodiment of free speech. What people used the Speaker’s Corner for years ago, they can now do from the comfort of their own homes. Or from a café. Or from the bus.

The main thing to grasp is that the Internet gave us a platform to speak our minds on a silver platter: whether you do it confined to 140 characters on Twitter or by rambling on your blog, almost nothing can stop us from expressing our opinions on any matter we like.

We have to resign ourselves to the fact that we can’t go back to the way life was without Internet. “In fact,” says  Dr. Tim Jordan, Senior Lecturer for Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College, “I can’t imagine there’s any chance that people would want to go back to the pre-Internet era, just like they wouldn’t want to go back to a time when there was no telephone.”

However, as C.P. Snow said in a New York Times 40 years ago, “technology is a queer thing, for it brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other”. Sure, being able to talk to friends and family that live overseas without hassle is great, but what happens if the Internet is cut off? Are we more likely to feel anxious and stressed, or liberated?

A survey undertaken for Virgin Media by the analysts Future Laboratory in 2009 indicated that staying in a place without Internet is a cause of stress and anxiety for an increasing number of people. Some experts, like Dr. Jerald Block, author of an editorial for the American Journal of Psychiatry, have even suggested that Internet addiction is a serious health issue that should be officially recognised as a clinical disorder. Talking to the Observer in 2008, Block argued that “the disorder is now so common that it merits inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”.

In a world where 24-hour rolling news have become commonplace, taking a break from technology means potentially missing out on something: an important e-mail, breaking news, a friend trying to get in touch with you on Facebook… Our society has become pressured to keep up because the modern world waits for no one.

Dr. Francis Keaney, Consultant Psychiatrist in the King’s College Addictions Department says: “I think the most significant effect the internet has on us is that it makes us overloaded with information. We all need some quiet space, some time to be meditative, and the Internet gets in the way of that.”

Dr. Tim Jordan argues that the Internet has imperceptibly become an integral part of our lives: “Even if people don’t use the Internet directly through their computers, they will use it through other mobile devices throughout the day without realising it.” The web is effectively taking us hostage: we have reached a point  where we simply cannot live without it.

In its early days, the Internet was a synonym for leisure. What we haven’t noticed throughout the years is just how much it has become a basic utility of modern day life.  The Internet security firm AVG has reported that 92 % of American children have an online footprint before they even learn how to talk. It’s not just how much time we spend on the Internet anymore, but all the different uses we have for it, most of which have become visceral to us.

The Internet is also posing new social threats. In an interview for the Portuguese magazine Única, George Clooney talked about the fact that our society seems to be losing all sense of privacy: “No one is able to hide anything anymore. We’re going to have to learn the craft of keeping secrets all over again. And if people think they can keep pictures or other kinds of documents in their computers a secret, they should think twice.”

The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) launched a new report last week on one of the most serious Internet-related problems, cyber bullying and online grooming. ENISA argues that there are risks in a child’s online environment that can be detrimental to their physical activities and social skills.

American journalist Anderson Cooper recently spoke out about cyber bullying on the Ellen Degeneres Show, emphasising the lack of empathy that typifies human behaviour online. “It’s not just happening in school,” he said, “it’s happening on our kids’ way from school on their mobile devices. They can’t escape from it and I think it’s taking a toll.”

Albert Einstein once said: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” What would we do if there was a complete Internet blackout? The web has acquired such a power that a scenario like this would cause nothing short of panic. The Internet has become a fundamental tool for us – for the good and the bad. “Whether we are managing its use very well,” says Dr. Tim Jordan, “is a completely different question.”

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