Without the internet I wouldn’t be able to write. In the realms of pre-internet media, one either comes to the publisher/editor/gatekeeper with mad skills and gets published, or he gets a generic pink slip with a one-line apology. You can’t use this system of rejection to make yourself much better. But with blogging, things are different. If every time you write a more sarcastic post you get double the pageviews, you know that the sarcastic thing is working for you. You can try out different voices, registers, and angles, and see what happens. You can literally chart the effects of your different approaches. And when five guys on Hacker News call you an ass, you’re probably being too much of an ass.
That’s one of five ways that Kenneth Myers figures the Internet has change his life, in his blog post A Stoic Meditation on Not Having the Internet. Myers wrote the post as an exercise in Stoicism, a practice that “involves deliberately setting aside time to visualize and make peace with all the horrible things that could happen to you.” As Myers describes this, the practice is both a way of preparing yourself for potential misfortune, and of reawakening to the joys of your present life. Close your eyes and imagine yourself living without the Internet, the thinking goes, and when you open your eyes again you’ll be newly present and alive to your experience online.
Since I have built my entire professional existence around the Internet (not to mention much of my personal life), I have often wondered who I would be and how I would have lived without it. But what I like about Meyer’s proposed exercise is that it not only promises to sharpen our awareness of how the Internet enhances our lives; it also creates the space for us to notice the places where the Internet potentially intrudes.
If you want to try this practice for yourself, let me suggest a few questions that can help you probe more deeply:
- What field would you be in or what work would you do if there were no Internet? This question isn’t just relevant to those who work directly in technology. Would you enjoy being a librarian if you were still working with index card catalogs? Would you like your management position if you couldn’t email your team? Would you have liked to be a travel agent but didn’t want to compete with Expedia?
- Who would be in your life if it weren’t for Facebook, Twitter and online dating? Are there old friends you’ve stayed in touch with because the Internet has made it easier? New friends, colleagues or lovers you’ve met online — or met because you went to an event you heard about online? What would your life be like without those people?
- What would your body feel like without the Internet? The time we spend online can make us more sedentary, which may be a significant health risk. But the Internet can also bring us information on how to live more healthily, recipes that inspire us to eat better, and music tha gets us off our butts and out to the gym. What do you think your body would feel like if you spent less time at the keyboard? What would your body feel like if you didn’t have access to a world’s worth of health information?
- How has the Internet affected the way you think? Our thinking habits are shaped by the ideas and perspectives of the people around us, as well as the information we have access to. Has your time online challenged your assumptions about the world? Helped you connect to people with different experiences and information? How has the pace of online life affected your capacity for reflection and deep thinking? How has it affected your ability to think and respond quickly?
- What would today have been like without the Internet? There’s no better way to grasp the Internet’s impact on your daily life than to review a single day, moment by moment. What would you have done during breakfast if you weren’t reading the newspaper on your iPad? How would your morning meeting have gone if had been over phone rather than Skype video? What would you have done in the two hours you spent handling e-mail? Who or what would have replaced that customer who found you through your webpage? What would you have eaten for dinner if you hadn’t found that recipe on Epicurious — or if we didn’t have a global, networked supply chain capable of getting kumquats to your local grocer? What would you and your kids do this evening if you weren’t playing the latest instalment of Angry Birds together? What time would you go to bed if you weren’t squeezing in one last tweet?
My hunch is that when we’re being really honest with ourselves, our story about how the Internet affects who we are and how we live won’t be overwhelmingly positive or irredeemably negative. It’s hard for anything as pervasive as the Internet to shape the world in mostly one direction or the other. But when we think and speak carefully and candidly about the myriad ways in which the Internet has helped to make us who we are, we can begin to exercise a degree of intention over how it shapes the way we live.