Alarmists of The World Wide Web Unite!

by Jonah Goldberg

A new study says that the web fuels atomization and alienation in society.

A new study says that the web is fueling atomization and alienation in society. According to researchers at Stanford University, regular web users — defined as people who spend more than five hours a week online — are becoming less sociable and more lonely.

I think this study is ludicrous. Take me for example. Now, I spend close to 75 hours a week on the web, and even when you discount for porn, I spend at least 40 hours a week online. I am perfectly sociable. Indeed, I am surrounded by all of my friends right now. There’s my Director of Research, AKA the Couch. There’s my constant companion, Joe. Joe of course is my belly and I talk to him regularly. Sometimes, if I lean in too close to the desk, he’ll playfully hit the space bar. He’s so silly, he just wants to help, isn’t that right Joe?

Whoops that was him hitting that space bar again. Silly Joe.

Then there’s TV of course. If you don’t think there’s anything good on TV, you’re just not looking hard enough. And then there’s beer. Ah, beer: You’ll never let me down. It’s a very happy family here. Sometimes I like to put Kleenex boxes on my feet and me and Joe and the guys from research will sit around and put on a puppet show during the commercial breaks.

Now is about the time where I am supposed to say, “no seriously, the methodological assumptions of the Stanford study are profoundly flawed…” The only problem is I was already being serious.

But that doesn’t mean the study isn’t flawed. The findings, which were reported on the front pages of both the New York Times and the Washington Post are so astoundingly under-whelming I cannot figure out where the news is. Political scientist Norman Nie, the lead researcher on the study (who reportedly likes to dress up in medieval armor and shout his last name at cocktail parties), says, “the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings.” Hmm, I didn’t realize we were talking about “real” human beings. So if that’s the sort of bigoted standard we’re gonna use, forget all that stuff I said up top.

Still, look at Nie’s data. A whopping 13% of regular internet users say they are spending less time with friends and family. My God, the anomie! Verily, we are a nation of hermits! 26% take less time to talk with friends or family on the phone. And, good grief, a staggering 4% of Americans are working less at the office and more at home. Four percent.

It seems to me, and the Couch, that Nie’s findings seem to undercut his point. The quickest way to understand what survey data say and don’t say is to flip the percentages around. So in this case 87% of regular internet users are not spending any less time with friends and family and 74% of them are still talking with friends and family just as much as they ever did. And, 96% of regular webbies are not spending less time at the office.

Just one of the things I’d like to know is whether the survey accounted for the fact that heavy web users tend to be younger, and young workers tend to forget to call their mommies because they are working so hard. This was true during the days of pneumatic tubes and it’s true in the Cyber Age. (hi Mom!).

Still, the larger point being splashed over the papers — that web use separates people from people — is an obvious one. “There are going to be millions of people with very minimal human interaction,” says Nie. “We’re really in for some things that are potentially great freedoms but frightening in terms of long-term social interaction.” Dr. Nie worries that the web is making people “home, alone and anonymous.” He says, “when you spend your time on the Internet, you don’t hear a human voice and you never get a hug.”

Makes you want to send him a greeting card with a kitten on the cover, doesn’t it? (It also makes you wonder how much hugging is going on at Stanford.)

Well, nothing is zero-sum in life. As Nie points out, the automobile was great, but it brought many changes which might not have been for the best. The printing press has had a genocidal effect on trees. Fire makes caves warm and bacon tasty, but it also burns people alive and has often been used as a blunt tool for censors. These are called trade-offs.

What’s wrong with Nie’s approach is that he thinks we can manage these changes. “No one is asking the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going to live in,” he tells the New York Times. “No one asked these questions with the advent of the automobile, which led to unplanned suburbanization, or with the rise of television, which led to the decline of our political parties.”

Yes, yes, yes. As a conservative, I agree with all of that; and I am on record as being a decided opponent of things like Internet voting. But somehow one gets the sense that Nie — and many other worrywarts out there — thinks we can do something about it. One sees in these “experts” a distinct lack of faith in people to satisfy their own needs. If people need hugs, they’ll find them — and I, for one, do not want the government helping me procure human contact.

Indeed, a symptom of this lack of faith is the habit of experts to extend current trends into the future. Environmentalists, for example, assume that whatever bad things technology does now, it will continue to do forever. Internet worriers work on the assumption that Internet communication will always be text-based. But there’s no reason to think that we won’t start using our computers — or TVs — as telephones. Already, lots of people use the web for long distance calls. Who says they won’t become videophones? Who says that instant messaging won’t become instant talking?

In the meantime, look at all the benefits we get from the web right now. Until a few years ago, people thought letter writing was dead. Now, thanks to the web, epistles have been reborn. Overall, human communication has increased dramatically thanks to the web, not declined. Indeed, the one impressive number generated from the study is that 59% of web users say they watch less television, which until recently would have been hailed as great news in this supposedly TV-soaked society. Personally, I think encouraging less television-watching is a hate crime. But, if people are watching less TV in favor of spending more time on the web, that means they are more likely to be communicating with each other. Unlike me and Joe, most people don’t catch up with friends when they’re watching TV, nor do they get hugs.

My apologies to anybody who visited the site earlier today and noticed that it was about five days old. We had a minor technological glitch and it has been solved. Indeed, we have lots of really cool stuff up on the homepage including our up-to-the-minute, exclusive, constantly updated, hot, hot, hot, South Carolina coverage. Plus there will be other surprises, too, all week — and weekend.

Also, speaking of glitches, in the wake of Felicity Barringer’s New York Times piece on cyber political journalism on Monday, many of you have written me asking if I’ve been fired. For some strange reason a caption under the photo of Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonathan Miller identified my NR colleagues as the producers of National Review Online and I was not mentioned at all. I tried to buy every copy of the Times so nobody would see, but that didn’t work. Then, I drove out to Felicity Barringer’s house and shot out her porch light. Then I thought about changing my name to Ramesh Ponnuru but that created all sorts of problems we don’t need to go into here. So, no, I have not been fired.

But, yes, my webmaster is quitting to make sombreros in a Mexican minimum-security prison. That, though, will be the subject of another column.