Last week, while waiting for the bus back home, my host dad William gave one of my brothers (Alexander) a toy gun to play around with. He was shooting tiny yellow balls and laughing and running to recollect them. My dad and I sat on a bench smiling at Alex’s enjoyment, and then my dad leaned in and told me that he’d given Alex the toy because today was Alex’s birthday. I was about to wish him a happy birthday and was feeling bad for not knowing earlier when my dad said, “It’s a surprise. We haven’t told him yet.” When we got back home, we had dinner like normal, and then my parents turned the lights off while my older brother, Richard, brought out a cake for Alex. Alex was delighted, beaming, and thrilled to be presented with a single gift—a battery powered wind-up truck. Sure enough, he’d completely forgotten that it was his birthday.
In the United States, I have a hard time imagining any child past the point of self-awareness not knowing when their own birthday is. Certianly our parents generally make a big deal about it, asking who we want to invite to parties and what gifts we’d like to receive, but once we’re old enough to know that one day a year is our special day, we start keeping track. I’m not sure what makes that different here—maybe rural Ecuadorian children are much less likely to be willing or able to keep precise track of the date, or maybe birthdays just aren’t a huge deal here the way they are back home (I suspect a bit of both). And now with Facebook, the rich and technologically privilged of the world (of which I’m definitely a part) have gone beyond the possibility of not knowing when our own birthdays are. Every time you log in, you’re greeted with a list of friends who are celebrating one more year of life—perhaps you’d like to write on their wall, or send them a digital gift? It’s so easy to keep in touch with people who are thousands of miles away and so easy to keep tabs on every single person you’ve ever run across in your life.
I’ve waffled back and forth with my feelings about the ever-increasing amount of information that’s just a click away from our fingertips. As much as I understand the dangers of digitizing my brain completely, I love having so much available to me. I’m completely addicted to information, and have been for a while. I spend over half of my income on books and magazine subscriptions. I’m constantly reading something. I got into journalism mostly because I realied that it’s a free pass to talk to anyone about anything you want and learn from them. Now, I follow almost 200 people on Twitter, mostly other news sources, and I’m constantly checking my feed for links to interesting articles from the New York Times, Mother Jones, Good, Slate and a million other sources. I love having a real-time idea of what’s happening, love that I can get links to five different commentaries on the same piece of news which all build off of and complement one another. But I’m starting to think that combining the seemingly unlimited potential of the internet with my information-craving brain is like building a meth lab in the basement of an addict. To be fair, information, unlike meth, is good for you in moderate amounts, but I think there might be a limit to how much it’s healthy to know.
People, especially ones from older genertions, have been lamenting the effects of technology on the brains of our youth for as long as I can remember. As a child, my mom put a weekly limit on my and my brother’s computer time—four hours a week. We kept dilligent paper logs of our time (it would never have occurred to me to lie about it), and while the limit was at times annoying (like when I was just about to beat Pajama Sam for the six-hundredth time), I don’t remember it being a huge burden in my life. I didn’t really start using the computer much until seventh grade, when it became my after-school social life (AOL Instant Messanger and LiveJournal), and then in eigth grade, when I started using it more for research for school. The internet was certianly part of my life, but it wasn’t my main activity or a place where I spent the majority of my time. I read books. I talked to my friends on the phone. I went to movies. I wrote in a journal.
How quaint that notion seems to me today. I still do all of those things—I read a ton, I watch movies, I write in several journals, I talk to my friends. And I do almost all of it online. My hours spent reading books cover to cover have been replaced by my steady stream of online news and downloaded PDFs of books and articles. Sure, I read print a lot too, but nowhere near as much as I used to. I call my friends on the phone occasionally, but mostly, we communicate via Facebook wall posts, email messages, G-chat and Skype. I journal in print when I need to work something out by myself, but I blog much more regularly. And almost all of my media comsumption—TV and movies—takes place through Hulu, Netflix, YouTube or illegally downloaded media that plays right on my computer screen. Sometimes, I feel like my life is bending ever-so-perfectly to fit the narrative Justin Timberlake lays out when he plays Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, in The Social Network. “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet,” he says, and I see my future laid out before me. And it scares me.
I love technology. I love the convenience, the information flow, the ability to meet, be connected to and stay in touch with people from every corner of the globe. I love the things social networking has enabled, love that the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street probably couldn’t have happened without Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. I love that it’s possible for me to teach myself about anarchist history or edible plants around Seattle or how to can fruit without ever leaving my room. But I’m worried about what it’s doing to me, to my relationship with people, with reality, with hard work, with secrecy, with anonymity.
Because of the internet, I’ve largely lost the ability to be uninformed, to make a conscious choice to not pay attention to current events or world news. Sure, I go hiking or backpacking and I don’t check my email for a week. But if it’s there, if I have the opportunity, I’m always online. If I’m not online, there’s always a to-do list in the back of my head for next time I am—check email, update the blog, come up with a witty Facebook status describing my adventures, check the New York Times to make sure we didn’t experience nuclear winter while I was away. I can’t focus for very long on any one thing—I always have four or five windows open and I switch between them, reading a chuck of each at a time. I do the same thing with books and magazines—I can’t sit down and read something for longer than about ten mintues before I get distracted by something else, even if it’s just another book. Some of that is just the way my brain is wired. I’m always thinking a mile a minute, always planning what I’m going to be doing next. But the internet has definitely accelerated the trend.
Besides just my brain, I’m getting a little unnerved by how much of my life takes place on the servers of Google. I use their search engine any time I need to look something up. This blog is hosted on Blogspot, which Google owns. I frequent YouTube, use Gmail for all of my email, use Chrome to browse the internet, Google translate to help me with Spanish papers and Google Maps anytime I need to get somewhere. Now I even have a profile on G+, their newsish social network. I don’t think Google is an evil empire, and I believe that they’re going to continue to be an absurdly successful company (which is why I surrendered a bit and bought a share of their stock). Google certianly doesn’t know everything about me, but if you add in the information from Facebook and Twitter, you’d probably get a pretty decent picture of my life. And that scares me a little. There’s nothing incriminating about me online as far as I know—no pictures of underage drinking, no nudity, no calls to arms other than occasional references to defending our land against things like the Keystone Pipeline. And it might be a bit hypocritical for me to complain about all of this data being out there when I’m the one who put it there in the first place. I think the pros of visibility—getting to share ideas, meet people, have interesting dicsussions—outweigh the cons, which is why I’m as wired in as I am. But it’s still a bit scary to think of how much of a digital paper trail is out there with my name on it, how much someone could learn about me without even needing to spy on me or hack into my accounts.
I talked to my dad about this over the summer a bit. He frequently warns me that everything I post on my blog will exist forever, and that I need to be careful about what I say so as to not scare off future employers. (I try to bite my lip and not point out that this advice seems a bit forced coming from someone who’s in the middle of starting his second company and hasn’t had a boss since he quit his job at Microsoft in 1997.) At one point, we talked a bit about my LiveJournal, which I used primarily in 8thand 9th grade to be an angsty teenager and talk to my friends about the drama going on in our lives. My dad said he felt sorry for my generation, because we don’t have the capacity to re-invent ourselves; everything’s out there forever. I said sure, maybe, but it’s not like the friends I’ve made at Whitman are going back and reading my blog from middle school and using it to form impressions of the person I am now. No, he said, he didn’t even mean that. He meant that because we have this permanent online record of ourselves, we’ve somewhat lost the capacity to re-invent ourselves in our own minds. Back when he was my age, you could do stupid stuff and forget about it. You could grow into a more mature person and let some of your youthful angst and adventure fade away in your own mind. But I can’t do that. If I want to, I can recall with painful clarity the conversations I had with my best friends when I was suicidal in 7th grade, because I have our AIM chats saved on my hard drive. I can go back and read my LiveJournal entries where I was whining that no one took me seriously and my family was driving me crazy, see all my friends’ comments and still feel guilty now for being so self-absorbed and needy for so many years. My self-perception has been shaped by my digital archive in ways I probably can’t fully comprehend.
It’s not bad to know yourself. But we’ve gotten increasingly caught up in this idea that pieces of data—discrete points in time—areourselves*. As programmer Jaron Lanier says in his book You Are Not A Machine, data always and necessarily underrepresents reality. My sense of who I was in 7th and 8th grade comes almost exclusively from my print journals, my LiveJournal archive and my saved chat conversations with friends, because my memories of those years of my life are too distant to be clear any more. In other words, my self-perception is based off of a series of points, not a continuous arc. And those point cannot hope to convery the rich complexity of my life. During those years, I was a mess. I was depressed and borderline suicidal for most of a year, and that’s mostly what I wrote about. Looking at the data points I have, I find myself wondering how I survived. But those points aren’t the sum total of my life during those years. I had moments of joy, of laughter, of happiness, of enjoying time with friends. I read books and got new ideas and joked around and thought about things besides the best way to hurt myself. And those barely register in the data I have. It’s like I have a photo album that’s missing a third of its pictures.
And as it does this to the past, I worry that technology is also datafying our present. I am a person. I experience a variety of emotions—crushing lonliness, extreme joy—that cannot be captured online. The other day, I was walking home while the sun was just starting to set. I’m in the middle of a cloud forest, in what I’m pretty sure is the most beautiful place on earth, and the sunset was almost too much for my brain to handle. I was full of so much emotion seeing all of that beauty, I was running and skipping and shaking my head and telling my friend that seeing things like that made me want to sleep with someone or believe in God (he, naturally, told me that I’m ridiculous). And you absolutely cannot have a moment like that on the internet. Data cannot possibly hope to represent something that real or raw.
Because of that, I think I compartmentalize myself. There’s my online identity—someone a little crazy who cares about activism and food politics, who overthinks everything and pretends to be an anarchist every so often when she gets upset with politics. My status updates and tweets and blog posts all fit into this narrative. But that’s not all there is to me. I do the same thing with events. For me, a birthday isn’t just a day when you turn a year older. It’s a family dinner, it’s a thing that will show up on my Facebook friends’ sidebars, it’s an opportunity to create the perfect event page to invite people to my party. It cannot and will never be as simple as it was for my brother here, who didn’t even know it was his special day until his parents told him.
I love the internet and I love technology. On the whole, those things have done far more good in my life than bad. But they’re also changing who I am, who we all are, the range and spectrum of experiences that are possible for us to have. I’m going to keep spending a lot of my time online, because there are tools and information there that I value. But in a completely digital world, Alex’s simple happiness at being presented with a birthday cake is not possible. And that’s why, unlike Sean Parker, I never want to live online.
*This point comes from an amazing article called Generation Why, which deconstructs Facebook and the impact of social networking on our self-perception. You should go read it now.