April 15, 2004

Would Thomas Jefferson Have Surfed Porn Sites: An Internet Reflection

by Jeremy Blachman

I read our symposium topic this time – Internet, Law, and Culture – and wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I figured we’d get some pieces on file sharing, which we have, and on Internet regulation, which we have, and I assumed we’d have something on weblogs and how they’ve transformed life as we know it, and the Internet is creating a whole new paradigm of communication – which we didn’t get, but I’m sure any number of writers out there have wonderful pieces on the topic that I could link to, or, even better, who can feel free to link to themselves in the comments.

I’m torn, as I sit here wanting to write something thought-provoking and interesting and compelling. Forget weblogs. The Internet in general has had an amazing impact on daily life. The amount of trivial knowledge I accumulate each day is frightening. The amount of topics I have a completely superficial knowledge of just because I read an article in the Kansas City Star or a paragraph on some company’s website, or a message board post written by an expert in whatever field it is – it’s mind-boggling.

Thomas Jefferson receives a great deal of well-deserved credit for somehow becoming a skilled architect, farmer, scientist, violinist, inventor, religious scholar, and – I’m forgetting one – political thinker, politician, founding father of a great nation, I don’t know, whatever the right words are. And he didn’t have the Internet. If he did, he’d have also become a competent physician (if I was a doctor, I’d buy the rights to funnyrash.com and make a killing charging people for dermatological creams based on whether it was red and itchy or brown and oozing or whatever else funny rashes do), a functioning lawyer (every statute and regulation is online somewhere), a literary critic (amazon.com), and, of course, a connoisseur of hardcore porn.

The Internet opens up all of these windows of knowledge I can’t imagine how people accessed thirty years ago. My grandmother can’t believe that I can check the price of the one stock she owns as the market’s trading. She’s flabbergasted that I can get the weather in any city around the world. She has no idea how I can send someone something and they can read it without me having to type it over again. And these aren’t even the things people who use the Internet think are particularly extraordinary.

So, like I said three paragraphs ago, I’m torn. I’m torn between writing this piece about how amazing the Internet is, and writing its companion piece about how the Internet gives us access to all of this new information we didn’t have access to before, but mostly that just gives us more stuff to talk and think about, and what do we really need it all for? It’s just mental clutter. Do I really need to read the sports section of all seven major New York-area newspapers to find out whether Cliff Floyd is going on the disabled list? (He is.) Do I need to know about the new modern art exhibit at a museum I won’t be visiting? Do I need to know what some random people in the middle of the country thought about Fantasia’s performance on American Idol? Not really.

But I can’t bring myself to really embrace the argument that it’s all pretty useless, because then I think about the cool stuff that the Internet enables. Being able to get to know people I otherwise wouldn’t, reading people’s thoughts and perspectives that force me to think and reflect and engage, feeling like the world is small and accessible instead of huge and impossible, being able to satisfy every craving for knowledge.

I don’t know what my point is really. Or if I even have one. Or if it even matters if I don’t. Maybe it’s this: I think life with the Internet is better than life without the Internet. But I want to know people’s feelings on the flip side. Who wishes it never showed up? Who wishes we still needed to pick up the phone to call someone and couldn’t just send an e-mail? Who misses card catalogs?

April 15, 2004 12:10 AM | TrackBack

I think blogging gives me a reason to rummage and absorb information from all over the place. I've always felt that writing is the very best learning tool, because producing thought requires assimilating information, bouncing it off other stuff you know, fitting it into a framework, squaring it with one's lower-level assumptions about knowledge.... I probably would never have had an interest in the history of Easter had I not read the article about the Easter bunny getting whipped and had the urge to blog about it. I guess I'm just saying that blogging gives me a reason to learn stuff--to want to learn stuff--that I normally wouldn't learn. That's why it's the healthiest habit I've ever indulged.

Posted by: Nick Morgan at April 15, 2004 12:44 AM

Like anything, the internet is a double sided blade. While the amount of useful and non useful information I've filled my skull with would boggle anyone, it also feeds my habit of procrastination and short attention span-ness. Need to know about a Supreme Court justice...two clicks and I've got it. Need to know the Independence Day of Paraguay? Three clicks and I've got it. Is it any wonder why we're turning into a nation of sloths?

Posted by: Beanie at April 15, 2004 09:18 AM

"Who wishes we still needed to pick up the phone to call someone and couldn’t just send an e-mail?"

There are certainly arguments to be made that the former is more personal than the latter. It's actually kind of odd; a hand-written letter seems much more personal than an e-mail. Yet, the same words are used. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that one person's handwriting can be distinguished from the handwriting of another, and that distinction adds the personal touch.

Posted by: Sean S at April 15, 2004 10:58 AM

You guys are all insanely talented writers. I like what you talk about and how you talk about. I don't know why I'm writing this here, I don't know if you'll read, I could care less, however no one is online right now and I can't sleep so I'm busying myself with random pages I find while browsing the web. Later... I like your blog site thing, it's cute.

Posted by: Andrea at January 26, 2005 12:15 AM
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