I read this week that 31% of people in Wales never use the internet. As a digital entreprenuer, I couldn’t imagine my life without it – its my work, money, maps, books, entertainment and how I stay in touch with my team, friends and family.
My virtual world makes my physical more streamlined and enables my business to share and scale movements, causes and relationships. The last three years of my life have been devoted to building technology that helps people. I am awe struck by the possibilities of the internet, but I to grapple with the human cost.
It stops us being present
I recently spent a day at a youth homeless project where 60 young people aged 16 – 21 live. Every single teenager I saw teenager was tethered to their screen. A screen that fractures their presence. I believe to be present we need the entire groupings of evolutionary assets – voice, touch and smell.
Buddhism teaches that anxiety is fear of the future; and depression fear of the past. 1 in 3 patients presenting at a GP clinic are suffering with depression or anxiety. I can’t say if the rise in mental illness reporting and the hours spent online are coincidence, but I do know the dangers of virtual identity are very real. A lot of people are never truly disconnected, amongst other things, this limits the ability to be alone – a central building block of emotional wellbeing.
Societal change lead by virtual reality relegates our emotions
I left school just before the internet revolution took hold, and I’m grateful to have done so. No where is the affect of the internet more pronounced than in teenage sexual relationships. The pornography industry has radically changed sexual behaviour in the last ten years. It has normalised behaviour many would regard as extreme and denigrated those who do not engage with it.
Sexual experiences are as emotional as physical, for both sides. Pornography reduces the experience to a carnal transaction to be completed with as much spectre as possible. It is a worrying development. There are a lot of great causes who are addressing the issue with those who have been affected, but we must all be alert to the speed at which online theatre causes behavioural change.
Our virtual footprint doesn’t give the context
It’s normal for a young person to try multiple identities. When I was 17 I fancied myself as a punk, I went to awful concerts that hurt my ears and wore awful clothes which hurt my mothers eyes. Thankfully, no where is this recorded online. Algorithms use data from our every online interaction. However transitory, this data is aggregated and becomes the incontestable virtual self. The data follows each child into adulthood, without opportunity to contextualise, this may and will have negative affects on the physical self.
It encourages passivity
Where I would normally phone a friend who just got engaged I would now like their post and phone them in a few days. I’m not sure about the morality of my delay, but I often feel that online communication makes us passive and reduces our human connectivity.People become products
Nearly all of the sites we all frequent are designed to take your data – not to help you, but to make profit. Companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook employ psychologists to shape sites to enlist your endorphins – the happy hormone that keeps us coming back for more – making them profits but providing value over and above the value we place on data.
Alongside this difficult human reconciliation, the web has opened up a world of possibility and given authority to those regarded as powerless. Citizens can and are driving profound change. People now know their experiences don’t happen in isolation. The web as an enabler is helping real change start at the grass roots.
The best use of the web is in creating the best conditions for great relationships, story sharing and movements. As we try to reconcile our physical and virtual worlds, we mustn’t forget the human agency involved, nor the basic need we have to connect with one another. The internet can still be a utopian movement where everyone is empowered to realise their enormous human creativity – but only if we recognise its limitations.