A lot of commentators, bloggers, and media pundits talk about the Internet’s ability to change lives dramatically, remake whole economies, and make the world a flatter and nicer place for everybody. Is this really true? Can the Internet really make that much difference?
To consider this, I would like to focus on one area that has been talked about in great detail on Internet Evolution: “activist” social networking.
There was a time when I strongly believed in the power of the Internet and was a member of many of these social groups. I would sign up for them and initially contribute with gusto, and then the excitement would wear off and I’d cease participation.
This year, I got away from my computer screen and joined an organization that focuses on bringing solar-powered lanterns, pump-sets, and fans to some of the poorest corners of the world. It’s only once you sit down with amazing people, who have made it their life’s mission to bring light into some of the most inaccessible and remote areas of the world, that you realize the Internet can’t do much.
These people don’t care about being “Liked” on Facebook or being Tweeted about. The satisfaction one gets from executing a project that brings electricity and light to a remote region is incomparable to posting something on Twitter about it. That’s why you have to get out into the field and experience the world’s problems firsthand.
Another misconception is that the Internet can help us live more fulfilled lives. Many of us think of the Internet as an escape, but it’s actually just a distraction: The best way to achieve whatever we want from our lives is not by spending time blogging about it or venting on Facebook or on Twitter. It’s by going out and actually doing something about it.
Since 2008, I have been taking nine days off of work every year to go on a meditation retreat to get in touch with my inner spirit. During that time I am totally cut off from the outside world (no phone calls/emails/Internet access). Once each year, I come back feeling refreshed from not having had to deal with non-stop emails and other digital attention-grabbers.
It has helped me to look at things from a completely different perspective and to realize what things are important and ignore the rest, something that the Internet -- with its constant distractions -- does not allow us to do.
In order to see any of this, though, we need to reduce our attachment to the Internet and refocus on ourselves and our basic needs, which can be easily met in the offline world: spending time with friends and family, being one with nature, etc.
So to return to the point at hand: What is the Internet really good for? How can it best benefit us?
The Internet is a great communications medium to exchange and harness new kinds of ideas, but it does not offer much beyond that. The sooner we start having realistic expectations about the Internet and its impact on society, the better off we’ll be.
— Ashish Mehta is an IT consultant who specializes in the business problems of SMBs. He has an MSc (Hons) from Columbia University, New York, and a BTech (Hons) from IIT-Kharagpur, India.