Sunday, March 24, 2019

Ignorance vs. the Internet


It is an article of faith among most modern non-Amish Americans that the Internet, with the limitless access to information it puts at our fingertips, is essentially a good thing. I’m here to suggest it’s not that simple. Choosing ignorance may often be the better strategy.

The Internet lifestyle

If you work in an office, you surely see people slumped over their computers most of the time. Some of them are using these new standing desks, but they’re still hunched. I’m usually hunched too. We are all beyond reproach, however, because we are doing this for a reason: we’re making money.

Kids are another story. Watching teenagers in their natural habitat nowadays is more boring than watching animals at the zoo. These kids just sit there, not slumped over necessarily but zoned out, slack-jawed, staring into their screens as if pithed, totally passive. We parents tell ourselves that it will be okay because they’re all digital natives and will be the next Zuckerberg.

Of course it’s absurd to complain about this because a generation ago teens were all rotting their brains out with TV, which was arguably even worse. At least they’re getting all kinds of information now, right?

Well, that’s actually the problem. They’re being trained to over-consume putatively useful information, which bad habit they’ll carry into adulthood. At least I outgrew “Simon & Simon” and “Remington Steele.” My kids are already watching grown-up talk shows about politics on YouTube, which doesn’t look like a behavior with a finite lifespan. My older daughter keeps quizzing me on this or that dull political topic and I never have anything to say. I used to tell her to ignore all that because she can’t even vote, but she’ll be of age as of the next election. So now I tell her, “Learn enough to figure out how you’ll vote. That’s not a ton of information. The issues, and the differences between the parties, are not subtle. Don’t overdo your research.” But it’s hopeless. Her entire generation seems hell bent on consuming this mountain of information. Because it’s there.

Of course there’s a ton of useless entertainment on the Internet, too, and modern kids are continually cycling among like ten browser tabs, doing the screen equivalent of the Hometown Buffet if it had taste spoons. I’ve throttled down the streaming video on my kids’ WiFi to 250K, so for them it’s like a slow-loading slide show, and super lo-res, almost like a child’s finger painting. It’s such a poignant experience watching this sad process unfold, my kids melting into the furniture as their brains ooze into the ether. But it would be even sadder if they were having the best possible Internet experience, or if they were having this experience while out in the world. (Lacking smartphones, at least my kids are aware of their surroundings when out and about.)

But doesn’t everyone need to relax?

I had a college roommate who played video games (on my TV) 24x7. When the rest of us called him out on it, because we wanted to rot our brains out to, say, “Star Trek – The Next Generation,” he would say, “Okay, just a minute,” and then play for another hour. When we verbally assaulted him and assassinated his character, he’d say, “Hey, man, after a hard day in class I just need to unwind, okay?” This was a joke because he sent most of the time shouting profanities at the screen.

My kids don’t do that, thankfully, but it would certainly be a stretch to say the Internet is, for them, fundamentally a platform for relaxation. The World Wide Web is loaded with rich repositories of stress. For my older daughter lately, its greatest source of strife is the collection of websites dealing with college admissions. Naturally, this application process is a potent source of stress no matter what, but the Internet is like a cat-o’-nine-tails these kids can and do flog themselves with. Let’s compare the college application process from my generation to the current one.

When I applied, I had my target school and my “safety” schools, just like the modern kids. My high school counselor said I’d have a decent shot at getting into UC Berkeley. My grades weren’t perfect, so I knew it wasn’t a sure thing so I applied to a bunch of other UCs as well. I think I spent like half an hour looking them up in “US News & World Report,” which gave me their ratings (number of stars) and a little paragraph on each. I mailed in applications to most of them and then pretty much got on with my life. The die was cast and at some point I’d get either good or bad news.

There was no real info about when I’d hear back, what my odds really were, or anything like that. Anybody I happened to talk to about college assured me I’d never get into Berkeley. I didn’t argue; I mean, what would be the point? They had their hunch, I had mine, and there wasn’t much evidence to support either position.

Some months passed, during which I barely thought about college. Then I started getting responses. Berkeley rejected me, and the rest accepted me. I made a plan to go to some UC, didn’t really matter which, and then transfer to Berkeley as a junior. Everybody assured me I’d never get in that way either because Berkeley didn’t like transfer students, etc. Again, I just shrugged. Who had any real info on this stuff? As it happened, my friends were wrong the second time around: one day I got a packet in the mail saying I’d been accepted. So I went. That was about it.

My daughter started her college application process like a year in advance. She combed the Internet for every scrap of information pertaining to every college she considered applying to. She maintained a master spreadsheet tracking them. She could quote massive amounts of statistics about each one: acceptance rate, average weighted GPA of students accepted, average SAT scores, national ranking, self-reported student satisfaction levels, lifestyle ratings, you name it. Tracking all this info was like a part time job. Meanwhile, there are apparently scores of websites where other students post the bloggy equivalent of “you’ll never get in there,” etc., and tips and tricks for applying that are probably about as reliable as homeopathic medicine. All this adds up to a massive time and energy sink for my daughter, her friends, and probably most college-bound teenagers these days.

But hey, it’s probably a better use of time than playing video games, right? Well, not necessarily, the way the stress can accumulate. The colleges seemed to tease my kid almost continuously, deferring her and putting her on waiting lists and announcing the approximate date when they’d inform her of her fate, etc. My daughter, and apparently most of her friends, were really stressed out during this process, their futures seeming to hang in the balance. When my daughter was deferred and then, months later, finally rejected by Northwestern, she was terribly distraught and immediately began researching the odds of transferring in later. When that answer was less than encouraging she started looking at transfer acceptance statistics for all the schools she’s interested in. She basically leaped from one conveyor belt to another. Sure, gathering information feels like the first step in an action plan, but she won’t be transferring for like two and a half years … what’s the rush?

(Of course I am not just talking about my own kid here. I’m sure her behavior around college apps is not unique or even remarkable for her cohort. And my kids’ overall Internet use is either typical of their generation or lower.)

When I applied to transfer to Berkeley I had no idea what the acceptance statistics were. If I’d wanted to worry over this, and pick at everything like a damn scab, I wouldn’t have had any real means to do so anyway. Where would I have researched this stuff? The public library? Yeah, right. I just shrugged and hoped for the best.

Now the Internet provides more college info than anybody could possibly have the time to ingest, which we naturally assume is valuable. But has anything really changed? Sure, our kids can bury themselves in data, but does that actually increase their chances of getting the college they want? Not that I can see. They’re just flagellating themselves, greatly exacerbating the already wrenching ordeal of college applications, and building up a giant body of facts and statistics to use in bemoaning their wretchedness to parents and friends. A generation ago, all we had to say was, “I was rejected,” which was a mercifully brief report.

Of course this overall phenomenon doesn’t end with higher education. I’ll bet most college seniors do a great deal of fretting over how they’re going to find a job. They probably bury themselves in even more data then. Myself, I did nothing. I just did my schoolwork and put off thinking about what would come next. I graduated, stayed in the Bay Area because there are plenty of jobs here, and applied for the first reasonable job that came along. I was hired inside of a week, and started my adult life.

Years later I had people asking me (and my wife), “Wow, you graduated in 1992? So you started your career during that horrible recession?” I didn’t know what to say, other than the truth: I was totally unaware of the recession. Nobody told me about it, and I didn’t read the news. My wife had exactly the same experience. We both wandered blithely into the job market and found work, just as we’d both nonchalantly transferred to UC Berkeley without knowing or caring how feasible a plan that really was. If our total lack of regard for the situation on the ground had any effect at all, it was probably just being less nervous during our interviews. So to me, this modern era of analyzing everything to death via the limitless Internet just looks like a way to maximize stress.

On the brighter side

But the Internet has a bright side, right? It helps us celebrate life! If we have a great hot fudge sundae or a really tasty beer, we can share that experience with our friends and family!

Well, as much as I do enjoy Beck’sting, of course all this social media has already devolved into soul-crushing one-upmanship, as has been bemoaned and documented so thoroughly I need not grow that mountain of evidence and opinion any more here. But there’s a less commonly cited downside to celebrating our activities, triumphs, and little life pleasures over the Internet, which I’d like to point out.

I’ve been reading this article in “The New Yorker” about Outdoor Voices, a clothing company whose marketing theme is “doing things,” by which they mean any kind of exercise—doesn’t have to be a marathon or a Tough Mudder—and feeling good about it. The feeling good part generally involves showcasing your activity, yourself, and your cute outfit via Instagram, with the hashtag #Doingthings. Now, if the opposite of “doing things” is being totally sedentary and stuck to a screen of some kind, then I’m all for it … but why does the act of not staring at a screen have to rely on the Internet to promote and celebrate itself?

Let me tell you a story. I coach a high school mountain bike team, which means I get plenty of exercise and access to the outdoors. Sometimes, though, depending on what group I ride with, I do a little extra riding after practice, to get in some good hammering (which is what leads to the really sweet endorphins). One evening I got home from the team ride, changed into my road shoes, grabbed my road bike, and headed back out. Going up a nice 12% grade in the Berkeley hills, I came upon one of my student athletes. Just like me, he’d decided to go do a little “stealth training” of his own! Just for the love of the sport! I was really stoked to see this.

“Getting in a few extra miles, eh?” I asked him. He replied, “Yeah, I’m trying to get 10,000 feet of climbing in one day.” Wow, I thought … some kind of personal ambition, I guess, maybe almost like a little vision quest. How totally cool. “Is this just something you cooked up on your own?” I asked. He said, “Well, it’s kind of a Strava thing.”

My heart sank. Of course this was more than just a private little bike ride. Nothing is private anymore. Everything is celebrated. There are t-shirts that say, “If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.” What an annoyingly cynical slogan. It’s pretty much the nail in the coffin of riding for riding’s sake. Now, every time we swing our leg over the bike, we’re guaranteed kudos.

Not that I have anything against Strava per se. I don’t happen to use it, because I’m too old and slow to care anymore how I stack up against others, and moreover I don’t want kudos. More to the point, I don’t want to give kudos because it takes too much time … time I could be riding more, cleaning up my bike, reading a book, or all the other stuff I don’t have time for. Can’t I just make a blanket statement that I love cycling and applaud you for doing it in general? And am I not making enough of a statement by donating my time and energy to coach these kids, in hopes of turning them into lifelong cyclists? Why does pushing ever more data up to the Internet need to be a part of that?

What is to be done?

Look, I’m not trying to suggest that you should curtail your Internet use. I’m just promoting a bit more awareness, so that when you’re sponging up info via this platform—or any platform, frankly—you might pause here and there and ask yourself if the info your getting is really worth the time and trouble. Is it making you money? Is it making you happy? Is it making you better? And if you have kids, you might consider talking about all this with them. (They won’t listen, of course, but as parents we gotta try, right?)

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