THE INTERNET GIVETH, AND, SIMULTANEOUSLY, the internet taketh away. On one hand, it gives us access to almost limitless knowledge, instant contact with anyone around the globe, and cute cat videos. (Also: surprisingly fascinating clips of turtles munching on watermelon.)
But the Internet takes away our privacy and has pretty much killed letter writing as an art — not to mention handwriting itself. (Many teens can’t read or write cursive writing, and don’t know how to sign their names.) And it’s changed our conception of downtime too; people don’t ponder or daydream as much as they used to.
Have a free minute? You likely don’t use it to contemplate your existence, plan your future, or let your mind wander. You probably whip out your phone to check email or Twitter or TikTok or YouTube. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
The internet has taken more from us than we realize.
Pamela Paul has written a book about it: “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”
Think of it as 100 short eulogies to things the internet has killed.
But this isn’t a preachy tome; the 100 essays are short and funny.
Ms. Paul is no Luddite, though she lets loose her inner curmudgeon on occasion.
“I think we’re odd and funny creatures, and you have to see the humor in this,” she says. “The internet has done some terrible things, serious things, but they’ve been amply covered (elsewhere. Things such as) effects on democracy and privacy. And misinformation.
“I tried to take a look at some of the daily, smaller, and more personal and funny things.”
Included on her list:
Number 79: Figuring out who that actor is.
Number 33: Birthday cards.
Number 29: The Rolodex.
Number 42: Patience.
Number 15: Uninhibitedness.
Not only did she not have a difficult time coming up with 100 things we’ve lost, but she had to “fudge the math,” as she puts it, and mention various things within one essay.
Her list includes things such as record albums (#59), your checkbook (#74), “TV Guide” (#47), maps (#53), losing your ticket (#5) and card catalogs (#83).
But it also includes solitude (#25), productivity (#26), being in the moment (#57), your attention span (#63), humility (#93), empathy (#54) and a parent’s undivided attention (#95).
The benefits of boredom
The number one thing she lists that we’ve lost to the internet?
Ms. Paul, now an op-ed writer for the New York Times, is the former editor of the New York Times Book Review and host of its weekly Book Review podcast. (Number 36 on her list: The Paper.)
In Feb 2019 she wrote an op-ed piece for the paper called “Let Children Get Bored Again.” The piece’s subtitle: “Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements. More important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency.”
The op-ed sparked the idea for the book.
“The idea is that when you have this little device you have a phone, a portable internet at all times, you have constant access to a limitless array of distraction and entertainment,” she says. “There’s no moment in the day when you have nothing to do, that’s just gone.
“What you lose with that, you’ve lost boredom. How could you possibly be bored, when you have all that at your fingertips? Good riddance!
“But the fact is, moments of boredom stop all of the input. It’s when we generate output, that is when we’re creative. Because we’re not constantly processing stuff coming from the outside, we can generate our own ideas.”
We have our most exciting eureka moments in the shower, she says, because that’s the one place we don’t have our devices and allow our minds to wander.
“We’re not teaching people to endure boredom anymore,” she complains. “They don’t have that opportunity to be creative, think for themselves, figure out things for themselves, be resourceful. People complain (that) the younger generation needs to be constantly entertained, they can’t be on their own.
“We’ve set them up that way. They haven’t been forced to (grapple with boredom).”
When the pandemic hit, the internet was a lifesaver, Ms. Paul notes.
“During lockdown, the internet essentially got us through it,” she says, listing its importance in providing “communication with loved ones, connection for people to work remotely, earn a living.”
But she mourns some of the things the internet has erased from our lives.
“I do have a really strong appreciation for things, not only in my past, but things before my time,” she says. “That comes from being a reader of literature and studying history in college. Lots of things have gotten better, but I don’t think the world is simplistic. There are many things from the past that I appreciate, and we as a culture come to appreciate.”
But often, she says, we receive the message that “moving forward is always better, (that) acquiring the next thing is going to make our lives better. Some people at some point realize it’s not true. But in regards to technology, the sell is: You’ll be so much better when you get this. Or: There is something wrong with you, you’re afraid of the future if you don’t buy or use this new service or app that’s been created.”
She objects to the forced obsolescence of modern technology.
“There is no reason to buy these things, but yet the industry forces you into buying them,” she says.
Mixed feelings and choices
Things we’ve lost to the Internet are nuanced. One loss can mean something to one person and something else to another, she points out. One person can even feel mixed about a loss.
For example, she’s relieved she no longer gets lost, because she now has GPS and Siri and Google maps.
“I can constantly situate myself,” she says. But yet, “you might remember, back in your 20s, you’d get lost on purpose. Frank Rich wrote in his memoir, in which he recalls traveling with his mother or grandmother, and she’d say, ‘Let’s get lost!’
“There’s something really amazing in that. There’s a lost opportunity in not knowing where you are in this world. So things can be positive and negative, depending upon the person in the moment in time.”
The loss she feels saddest about, Ms. Paul says, is the ability to be in one place at one time.
“With the internet there, in the background, it’s really hard to focus on what’s going on at any given moment, and not be distracted,” she says. “I think that we’re always aware there are 100 or more people knocking on our virtual door: chat or text or a like or a follow or an email or Google invite.
“There’s this constant sense that whatever you’re doing, there are all these other things you could be doing at the same time. For people, that makes living in the moment and focusing on where you are and giving yourself to that, all the harder.”
She recalls a time when people would go on vacation to a different continent or country, and not be reachable while they were away.
“It didn’t end in a world crisis. There’s nothing stopping us from doing it again.
“I think what people don’t realize is that we’re in charge of our own choices here,” Ms. Paul says. “You can choose when to be connected. But most don’t do it.” ¦