< What it Means to be "Online"


Friday, November 09, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  If the US does end up making online voting a regular part of the democratic process, it will be just another in an ever-expanding list of life moving online. On the Media producer Alex Goldman has been wondering if we've already crossed a Rubicon.

ALEX GOLDMAN:  There was a time when the bar you had to clear in order to get online was pretty high. In the late 60s and early 70s, the proto Internet known as ARPANET was accessible only from cabinet-sized computers located in universities and research laboratories. In the 70s and 80s, with the rise of personal computing, getting online gradually became easier, but it was still more the province of hobbyists and hackers. It wasn't until the 90s, with the introduction of the World Wide Web and mobile computing, that being online began to weave its way into the fabric of the everyday. And in the past decade, with the rise of the cell phone system, tablets and smartphones tether us permanently to the Internet. Gone are the days where I would spend an hour in a bar arguing over whether it was Slade or Quiet Riot that first recorded “Cum On Feel the Noise” - it was Slade, by the way – because I have the answers at my fingertips. In fact, our constant connectivity has changed the very notion of what it means to be “online.”

GINA SVERDLOV:  People tend to think going online means sitting at a desk, pulling up your laptop and doing something like performing a Google search or doing some shopping online.

ALEX GOLDMAN:  Gina Sverdlov is a consumer insights analyst with Forrester Research, a market research firm. Forrester tracks what people are doing online, how they’re connecting and, most importantly, how much time they spend there. And this year,  Forrester found that people were reporting spending less time online than in previous years, especially younger people. But it turned out that what Forrester found was a change in perspective, not behavior.

GINA SVERDLOV:  They’re not really registering some of the activities they’re doing as being online activities, So, for example, quickly checking a Facebook post on your mobile phone while you’re waiting for the bus or using FaceTime to speak with somebody on the phone, they’re not really registering these activities as being online activities because it’s just how they live.

ALEX GOLDMAN:  This idea that we have trouble distinguishing life spent online and offline has been a part of popular fiction for decades. William Gibson, father of the cyberpunk genre, coined the phrase “cyberspace” in the early 80s to describe a virtual place that people can move around in, a place that can sometimes be mistaken for the real world.


READER:  Cyberspace, a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts, a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity, lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.


ALEX GOLDMAN:  And then, of course, there’s “The Matrix,” an online world indistinguishable from real life, where you can download programs directly into your brain.


NEO:  Can you fly that thing?

TRINITY:  Not yet.


TANK:   Operator.

TRINITY:   Tank, I need a pilot program for a V-212 helicopter.


TRINITY:  Let's go.


ALEX GOLDMAN:  Or David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” where the characters play a videogame so realistic, no one’s sure where the online world ends and reality begins.


TED PIKUL:  You've killed him. Are you gonna kill me next?

ALLEGRA GELLER:  He’s only a game character.

TED PIKUL:  Allegra, what if we're not in the game anymore?

….If we're not, then you just killed someone real.


ALEX GOLDMAN:  Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2045 human beings will be able to recreate the inner workings of the human brain on computers, enabling people to live forever online, depending on how you define life. Kurzweil believes that he may already have enough data to resurrect his dad.

RAY KURZWEIL:  The artificial intelligences will be smart enough to create an artificial person that has a personality that matches the information we have about a particular person. So my father sort of instinctually kept everything in his life, so I’ve got all of his letters and all of his music and photographs and movies, and we can get his DNA from his gravesite. You won't be able to tell the difference between these artificial people in a virtual environment and real people. And, in my view, they then become real people.

ALEX GOLDMAN:  If these futurist notions of online interaction seem far out, keep in mind that wearable computing prototypes like Google's Project Glass, glasses that allow you to take and share pictures and video, even make calls and send e-mails, are being heralded as the future of being online. And cell phone augmented reality apps, which overlay online information over images from your phone's camera, are already pushing us in this direction. This fluid understanding of what it means to be online will make it harder for researchers like Gina Sverdlov to measure, but they might have an ace up their sleeves.

GINA SVERDLOV:  Online tracking, for example, is something that a lot of marketers are already using, so rather than asking people about their behaviors, to actually leverage a panel where you can track their online behaviors. We’re seeing that spring up for mobile, as well, and possibly in the future when, you know, we see more of these wearable computing devices, we’ll see tracking for those, as well. So we’re seeing that researchers are starting to rely on surveys to get more of the stuff you can't track and leveraging actual online tracking to get at what people do and not what they say.

ALEX GOLDMAN:  What it means to be online is likely to continue to change, and we may see a time soon where being online is indistinguishable, for the average person, from walking down the street or brushing your teeth. But even if that day comes, so long as there's advertising to be done [MUSIC], someone will know when we’re actually using the Internet.


For On the Media, I’m Alex Goldman.



Gina Sverdlov

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Produced by:

Alex Goldman