< The Personal Impact of the Web


Friday, February 18, 2011


BROOKE GLADSTONE: This show was recorded last Tuesday, February 15th, in front of a live studio audience. Ben Allison performed this live, too.

[OTM THEME MUSIC/UP AND UNDER] From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, live from the Jerome L. Greene Space. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Brooke?


BOB GARFIELD: I just [LAUGHS] wanna begin - [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] - our very first live broadcast of On the Media to say that the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tonight, we intend to resolve the question - and, yes, it is a big one: Will the Internet deliver us or destroy us?

[LAUGHTER] We're starting with, well, you. How is the Internet changing you on a personal level? Is it making you better, smarter, less isolated? I think that it does.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'll be making my case, the correct case-

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] - that we are being just a little bit de-civilized, devolving slightly into sad, evil trolls lurking in the shadows, saying horrible things about one another, stealing content and shrinking our attention spans like a sweatshirt in a hot dryer.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right now, I'll argue we're living through an Internet utopia. In the next part of the show, Bob will be the utopian.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] As if the onset of digital barbarism were really in doubt. Have you ever heard of the site 4chan?


BOB GARFIELD: People do the most reprehensible things because the Internet makes them think that other people’s feelings are just - less real. There’s actually a name for that. It’s called online disinhibition effect. So that’s where Mattathias Schwartz came in. [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Schwartz comes in, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. He spent a whole lot of time with 4chan fans, and he witnessed in his reporting some extreme cases of online disinhibition effect.

MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ: I wrote about a young man by the name of Mitchell Henderson. He was, I think, 12 or 13. He shot himself in the head with a rifle and then inexplicably became this phenomenon. They made up this rumor that he had killed himself because someone had taken his iPod. People prank called his house. Then they made little images with bullet holes in his head and broken iPods on the floor. Someone posted a dramatic reenactment to YouTube, where Mitchell lost his iPod and then went and killed himself. The further and further away it got from the actual suicide, the more of them just started to find it incredibly funny.

BOB GARFIELD: They lost sight of the underlying tragedy, a real life boy taking his own real life.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, I agree, it’s horrible. But just because people act like a bunch of monsters on a message board doesn't mean that it’s the Internet that’s dehumanizing us. It just enables us to be more of who we are, anytime, anywhere, by enabling us to connect. I give you Exhibit A, J.P. Neufeld. Neufeld stopped what might have been a devastating attack on a school half a world away.

J.P. NEUFELD: I saw a weirdly titled thread started by a user who I had noticed before, Sirtom93. It was titled “This is It.” And I saw the message saying, “Today at 11:30 GMT, I will attack my school with arson and other forms of violence. Those bastards will pay.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: He called the cops.

J.P. NEUFELD: I said, hi. I'm a guy from Canada and [LAUGHS] I saw a person online s – saying that they're trying to burn down their school in a few hours. I got right through to the emergency dispatcher. I imagine it was probably his weirdest call that day, but he took it very well, didn't ask if it was a hoax or not, just took down all the information I could give him. I realized there was a four-hour time difference, so what was 6:40 my time was 10:40 his time, meaning I only had about 50 minutes before he was going to burn down the school.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in less than aboot 50 minutes -

[LAUGHTER] - this Canadian college student was able to call the cops and get handcuffs on this British high schooler before he could do any harm. Complete strangers reach out through the Net all the time to help other people. And, yes, sometimes that help is really lazy, like signing an E-petition or something, but sometimes it’s not, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: I understand, but look, [LAUGHS] I have 600-some friends on Facebook, a post here, a status update there, so superficial. And considering it’s supposedly the apotheosis of connectivity, it’s pretty weirdly disconnected. Sherry Turkle, a researcher at MIT, told me a heartbreaking anecdote.

SHERRY TURKLE: There was a story of a woman who, who posts on Facebook that she’s gonna commit suicide, and none of her friends did anything. On the one hand, that’s a sort of horrible story. You know, what are these friends? Or they're not friends, they're the friended, which is very different. But, you know, on the other hand, when the hordes of journalists descended on these friended and said, you know, what were you doing not responding to her, these people said, you know, we don't know what we are to her. We didn't know what our responsibility was to her. I see people texting at funerals. I see people texting during faculty meetings. People bring their phones and take calls during dinner. We don't take a moment and realize how important it is to be with the people we're with.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't buy it.

BOB GARFIELD: What do you mean, you don't buy it? This is an MIT professor telling us that the Internet is making us turn too inward. MIT, Brooke.


[BOB LAUGHS] Honestly, the fact of the matter is that she and many people are deriving the idea that the Internet makes us lonely from a single study. In 2006, they determined that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people that we confide in had been reduced from three people to two. Lee Rainie, who is director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, told me that they basically just blamed it on the Internet.

LEE RAINIE: It was a pretty logical suspect to look at because the rise of the Internet and the rise of mobile phones in people’s lives directly coincided with this major social change, the shrinkage of networks and the growth of isolation. But it was a guess. There was, there was no direct evidence.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so, so he’s saying correlation but no causation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly. And in 2008, Pew revisited those findings. Lee Rainie gave us a few really delightful little insights into what happens when people use the Net, and one of them was that frequent Internet users and those who have a blog are more likely to confide in someone who is of a different race, and those who share photos online are more likely to discuss important matters with people of another political party. So the Internet is not the culprit in loneliness here.

BOB GARFIELD: I get the, the Pew research, and so forth, but all this never-ending superficial engagement doesn't strike everybody as enriching, more like enslaving. We're inundated with interactions, with devices, with media, with factoids. A writer named Nicholas Carr studied this problem and a few years ago made a very big splash with a magazine piece in The Atlantic called Is Google Making us Stupid? Carr says that we're losing something, namely our ability to pay deep attention to, to anything. And Carr thinks this is changing us as people, and not for the better.

NICHOLAS CARR: There are indications, and I think this is part of probably a long-term trend, that we as a society are devaluing contemplative thought, deep reading, solitary thought. I personally think that the loss of this kind of linear, literary, attentive way of thinking is an enormous loss for us as individuals, in terms of the loss of the richness of our intellectual lives and even of ourselves, and also a loss for culture.

BOB GARFIELD: A loss for culture.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you finished?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, then, let me just -

BOB GARFIELD: C’est fini.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I’m gonna move on -





BROOKE GLADSTONE: You should listen to Gary Small. He’s the director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCLA.

GARY SMALL: We did a study that we affectionately termed “Your Brain on Google.” And [LAUGHS] what we did was to look at the brain in real time when it searches online, and we found that older people who had prior Internet experience showed a much greater degree of brain activity than those who were naive to the Internet search experience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Web-savvy had twice as much brain activity in the areas that govern complex reasoning and decision making. And since these were all older Americans, this isn't generational. So let's assume that Nick Carr is right and the Internet is rewiring us, dealing with all these information streams. I also talked to somebody named Katherine Hayles. She’s an educator. She wrote an important paper called Modes of Cognition. And she says that maybe dealing with all these streams simultaneously is simply adaptive behavior for a new world, that certainly we need the deep attention that Nicholas Carr so venerates, but we also need what she calls hyper-attention, this hopping-around attention which the kids are so good at.

KATHERINE HAYLES: They're much more adept at switching information streams very quickly and very flexibly, and those can be assets.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you as worried then as Nick Carr is?

KATHERINE HAYLES: No, because I think that it’s possible to form bridges between hyper-attention and deep attention. I think that you can have both.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you wouldn't shut down their computers and throw out their games.

KATHERINE HAYLES: Oh my goodness, no.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, your thoughts?

BOB GARFIELD: Okay well, I – well, I think two things. The first thing I think is that you lined up more experts than I did.


BOB GARFIELD: And that’s not fair.

[LAUGHTER] But beyond that, I mean, I hope you’re not suggesting that teenagers are undergoing some sort of evolutionary adaptation, like Internet gills or something [LAUGHS], you know, that online people somehow have become a different species, because it’s a little too soon to be declaring that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, I'm just suggesting that this new technology just makes us more of who we already are. If we're lazy, well, then we have all these opportunities to steal and cut and paste, and if we're hedgehogs, we can just burrow, burrow deep without end. And, if you don't mind, I think I'll let Pew’s Lee Rainie make the closing argument.

LEE RAINIE: The notion that there is virtual life and real life and never the twain shall meet is pretty quaint in this day and age, according to the people that we talk to. They blend these worlds so seamlessly that they actually can't report to us, in many respects, which part of their lives they are living with these virtual digital tools and which parts they are living in their voice communication, in their face-to-face communication because they're all intertwined.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, in a final analysis, we don't really live in the world at all, Bob. We live in our heads. We just think we live in the world.


BOB GARFIELD: That scares me.

[LAUGHTER] I mean, [LAUGHS] maybe you live in your head, but I live in the world with, with mountains and, and rivers and many faraway lands. And, and, in fact, it is to those very faraway lands that this debate heads next.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's right. Let's take on the Internet and the world in the next segment.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, live.