The Internet and modern times: Are they driving us crazy?

—Peter N. Stearns

The evidence is piling in: People are not only dangerously addicted to the Internet, but are also driven literally insane by its pace and pressure. This includes imagining cell phone vibrations out of the blue—a phenomenon known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome—and feeling lonely and dissatisfied despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook.

Half full or half crazy?

The growing concern about the downsides of the Internet and its communications spawn raises important issues. In their most recent revision of their staple Diagnostic manual, American psychologists are recognizing Internet addiction as a new illness. More widely, a variety of observers speculate not only about the Internet’s outright damage to individual psyches, but about the wider inadequacies of digital offsprings such as Facebook.

The discussion is interesting in its own right, but it also evokes recurrent frustrations with modernity in general. The basic conversation is not as novel as many of its proponents imply. After all, the notion that people are sacrificing wellbeing to the inexorable demands of technological change is hardly a new one. Putting the current Internet debate into wider context may actually contribute to sorting out the problems involved.

Most obviously, it has long been clear—if not always adequately discussed—that modern developments harm a minority. Rates of depression unquestionably go up with the onset of modernity, and the Internet is simply another contribution to a larger story. The result is a clear challenge to objective evaluation: how much should the new troubles of a minority detract from the larger satisfactions modernity brings? Should those of us who both enjoy and depend on the Internet change our ways because some people are endangered? (And, of course, how big is the threatened minority in any event?) Finally—this has also been part of the modern story—can’t we generate some compensatory therapy?

But the minority downside is only part of the picture. Critics who attack the hollowness of the Internet’s social results also sound a familiar alarm. Other aspects of modernity must be discussed in terms of false promises. Consumerism and modern leisure are two other examples of phenomena that win ardent support but which, nevertheless, do not bring the systematic benefits their advocates claim. Do the critics have enough evidence to counter the enthusiasms of the majority—can so many enthusiasts be wrong about their own commitments? Are we sure that satisfactions were really greater in the good old days?  Do we risk measuring against a misleading nostalgia? The analytical challenges here are both significant and interesting, and again the Internet can fit into a larger, though complex, effort at evaluation.

My own take on modernity—and I would apply the same thinking to the Internet, which I enjoy a lot—is that, overall, the gains outweigh the downsides, though the damage should not be swept under the rug. Periodic criticisms of modernity, which is now emerging around the Internet debate as well, too often overdo the dark sides. So far, as I can see, the claims that the Internet is driving us all crazy just does not stand up.

It is true that modernity has not produced as many gains as its more enthusiastic proponents have claimed, and that too often modern societies have let changes sweep over them without sensitive assessment or control. We can, in other words, do better, even as we recognize that we neither can nor should turn back the clock entirely. Beneath the various crises that claim the headlines, the challenge of taking a more thoughtful approach to modern change needs more attention than we have so far been able to provide. Critical discussion is in this sense a vital first step.

But, at the very least, Internet fans and critics alike should know that this is the latest in a series of modern improvements that should be handled with care. What’s next in the queue?

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed, published by NYU Press in April 2012.

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