Is the Internet Making Us Any Happier?
There is a heavy cost to the tremendous benefits of online technology.
Posted October 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- The internet has improved life in many ways.
- It doesn't appear that the internet has made us happier people.
- Our increasing reliance on the internet poses serious consequences.
I am not a Luddite. I use the internet at least as much as the average person and am amazed by its speed and efficiency. A product appearing on my doorstep a day after making a few clicks is a miracle. As a writer, I’m pleased to not have to go to a library to do research or find answers to my many questions. Like everyone, I’ve saved much time and energy by getting lots of things done without having to leave my house, an especially good thing during the pandemic.
But am I any happier? I certainly don’t think so. Has society—meaning relationships with other people—improved in any real measurable way? I would say no. Civilization may have advanced in some sense, but I think it has come at a significant price.
In fact, I would say people are generally less content than when the internet began to take over our lives a quarter-century ago. I’d also say that we’ve become a much more contentious society than we were at the fin de siècle. Everyone seems to be mad at each other, believing they are getting the short stick in some way. Stress has become the malady du jour, further revealing the perpetually false promise of technology to make our lives simpler. Social media is as divisive as it is communal, so much so that many are opting out.
It’s clear that the continual encroachment of the internet into our everyday lives has not been a free lunch. For every action, there is an equal and opposite and equal reaction, according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion (I looked it up online), and that law appears to apply to technology. The automobile provides a prime example; we can get to where we want to go much faster than by walking or by horse but at the same has cost millions of lives in accidents and pollution.
For me, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of technology that has made us regress as much as progress. Emotions and feelings are the heart and soul of the human experience, and they can only be simulated online. An email or emoji does not come close to the literal chemistry that takes place when two or more people are together. I suggest that we’ve become less kind, empathetic, and compassionate people in the early 21st century, and I look to the parallel universe we’ve created as a significant contributing factor. Patience, which I consider to be a highly underrated attribute, is in short supply these days, a function of the I-want-it-now nature of the internet.
Despite what many millennials and Gen Zers will say about the irrelevance of baby boomers, having grown up in an analog world offers some valuable perspective. After all, digital natives, as they are called, have no recollection of a time in which people operated by the physical laws of time and space. I believe that these laws are integral to the psychic wellbeing of humans, as they provide boundaries by which to make sense of the world. Without them, we are lost in a deep and endless sea of information and data that, ironically, may be shallow and superficial.
The revenge of analog and flourishing of all things retro and nostalgic has much to do with the digitalization of life. Our minds may be content but our bodies are yearning for the physical and sensory. We need primal antidotes to the hours and hours we’re spending each day looking at screens. Needless to say, the internet has no spirit or soul, and the ghost in the machine is leaving us desperate to find answers to the big questions of life that even Google cannot provide.
Even the internet’s primary deliverable—the ability to do things faster and more accurately—is problematic. Greater speed and efficiency are wonderful but there’s a catch, they only make you want greater speed and efficiency. No matter how fast and useful online technology gets, it will never be considered speedy and helpful enough.
It goes without saying that the internet has played a major role in the sense that time is speeding up. It isn’t, of course, but the arrival of a world in which time doesn’t exist in the same way has made it feel that we can and should be getting more things done. This infinite loop, combined with the internet’s lack of a spatial dimension, has helped create a widespread feeling of cultural vertigo, where anything can happen anytime, anywhere. It’s as if we’re all living in a David Byrne song.
We ain’t seen nothin’ yet, however, as we gradually morph from our corporeal selves into avatars moving through a Metaverse. If past is prologue and exponential leaps continue to be made, the internet will gobble up work, school, play, and pretty much everything else like Pac-Man until the virtual world eclipses the real one. Once you enter the technological rabbit hole, we know, there’s no going back, and I can’t but wonder what life will be like as we dig deeper and deeper into it over the next few decades. Switching metaphors, the train has left the station, but we might want to ponder where it’s taking us.
Samuel, Lawrence R. (2018). Future Trends: A Guide to Decision Making and Leadership in Business. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.