Another article that I heard a few people talking about over New Year’s was this piece on “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer. It’s a contribution to a familiar subgenre: talking about the need to slow down and collect our thoughts in an era where we’re being bombarded by screens, technology, information. After reading it, a friend speculated that there will come a day when people boast about not being on the internet, the way they used to boast about not owning a TV (a boast that no longer has any value, since you can watch TV without owning a TV). Even the writer of the article, you’ll notice, does not go that far; he takes a break from the internet sometimes and doesn’t connect when he leaves his computer, but some kind of internet connection is a necessity in his job.
That may prevent internet-bashing from being quite as big as TV-bashing was. Most of what a TV provided could be provided by some other medium – even real-time news updates, which the radio was fine for. So all you really had to reject by giving up TV was the entertainment programming; and that, of course, was precisely the point. But the internet is a combination of so many things, and some of them have replaced or supplanted other things. It was possible in 1997 to say you weren’t on the internet and be proud of it. Now, for many people, it would sound like a person of another era claiming not to use telephones. (There were people who refused to use telephones, I’m sure, but I don’t think it was cool the way doing without TV was considered sort of cool.)
Which may answer a question I’ve floated once or twice: why is it that bashing the internet has never quite taken off the way bashing TV did? Sure, there are lots of articles about what the internet is doing to our brains, and some of the things they say may even be true, but they usually carry with them a sense that the writer is descending into fuddy-duddyism. Whereas bemoaning the influence of TV has been a cottage industry literally since the medium became popular, and that attitude doesn’t carry the same penalty as being anti-internet. Criticizing the internet is taken as a sign that the writer cannot accept technological change and is mistakenly, nostalgically remembering the past as being smarter than it was. (And sometimes, maybe most times, that’s exactly how the writer comes off.) Saying the exact same things about TV – that it eats up too much of our time, paralyzes us with infinite choices, makes us passive, overloads us with meaningless information – has never carried the same stigma. But as I said, I think that’s partly because TV never became – for most people anyway – a necessary part of living and doing business, the way the internet is for many people.
Also, perhaps, there’s a selection bias here: attacks on one media tend to be most prominent in another, separate medium. So TV-bashing was most common in print and, before Hollywood studios accepted TV, in the movies. But print has been integrated with the internet for a long time now, and it just looks silly to bash the internet in a piece that is being read on the internet.