TMI: Does everyone else have a love/hate relationship with the internet too?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 9, 2014
Summary:
The next generation of internet users aren't going to a remember a time when they didn't have access to all the information they could ever need. But is that a good thing?

For those of you that aren't into your web acronyms, TMI stands for Too Much Information. And that's going to be the general theme for this piece – the

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assumption currently stands that knowledge is power, but I'm starting to think that actually too much information isn't necessarily a good thing and our generation needs to be careful about how much they rely on the internet.

This post was prompted by a story I spotted this morning about LG branching into the wearables market by launching a wristband for children, which allows parents to keep track of their kids' location via GPS. They can also listen to what's happening in their child's environment via a microphone. Of course this sort of product was inevitable and LG certainly aren't the first to get into this space, but is it actually a good idea? My initial reaction to reading the story was that it is a great opportunity, mostly because I can imagine myself being an anxious parent that wouldn't want to let my children out my sight. But then I read this comment from Peter Bradley, director of services at the charity Kidscape, who told the BBC:

A parent should never solely rely on a device alone. This will only give a false sense of security. Children still need to be taught about dangers - particularly 'stranger danger'. There are ethical points to consider too - should a child be able to be traced as part of going about their daily lives? How can a child develop their own coping strategies knowing a parent is watching over them?

Bradley is right. Could giving children a false sense of security negatively impact how they develop and impact their adult lives? Possibly. It's certainly worth considering. But then I also started thinking about it from the parent's perspective – is it good for a mother or a father to constantly have access to information about where your child is and what they're doing? I for one know that if I had this capability at my fingertips I wouldn't just be using it to check where my child was if they were a few minutes past their curfew, I would probably be checking it every half an hour to make sure that everything was as it should be. It would probably become a similar routine to how I check social networks. And when would this end? At what age? 8? 10? 14? Of course there's no right answer, but I can't help but think that actually there's something healthy in sending your kid out into the world on their own (even if that just means play school) to fend for themselves. It's healthy for them and it's healthy for you.

I'm certainly aware of the fact that the internet and social networks have impacted how I interact with my friends and any relationships I've had – and again, not in a good way. Before I had pervasive access to the internet and the constant ability to check up on people via a quick click on an app on my smartphone, I just had to trust what people were telling me was true and judge my relationships based on what people told me in person and how they interacted with me and the people around me.

However, now, I am able to keep tabs on everyone in my life across a number of platforms. How would you feel if your significant other was speaking to an attractive person on Facebook that you didn't know? Or liking a photo on Instagram of someone that you'd never heard of? You may think that these things are insignificant – but I've asked a number of my friends what they'd do in this situation, out of curiosity, and they have all said the same thing: they'd be angry and jealous. Not only this, but when you meet someone you know, more often than not, you now have full access to their personal history online via Facebook, Twitter etc. Does that actually benefit you?

Sometimes, maybe. Also, how often have you seen something on Facebook or Twitter and you've wondered if it's about you? Or how often have you felt like someone has said something on one of the social networks that they wouldn't dream of saying to your face? Or have you ever felt embarrassed because one of your posts didn't get a response? I'm inclined to think that these 'online relationships' and interactions only create additional insecurities and  to a certain extent they erode trust between people in real life.

I probably threaten to quit all social networks at least once a week and I would say that I'm a high volume user of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Part of this is because of the reasons I described above, I think I may enjoy my relationships more without the online aspect to them, but also because I feel a lot of pressure from having a stack of useful information at my fingertips. What do I do first thing in the morning?

I roll over and pick up my smartphone and I begin the routine of checking all my data sources – social networks, the news, the weather, emails, my bank balance. This probably takes me half an hour or so and to be honest I find it an exhausting way to start the day – and yet, if I didn't do it, I would feel like I was missing out. I sent out a tweet earlier asking my followers if they ever thought about going cold turkey from the internet, and here were some of the responses:

Hardly a solid bit of research, but it's interesting that a number of people quickly came back to me expressing similar frustrations with their online lives. I've spoken to a few friends and family and they have all said the same. They are all getting sick of having information constantly thrown at them. And it's only going to get worse as we get better at managing data and the internet of things begins to take off.

Health is another one of those areas where there is an easy use case for wearable technologies, with the likes of Apple and Samsung jumping on the bandwagon with their respective solutions. Not only this, but I noticed a story last week that hospitals are beginning to use detailed consumer data to create profiles on current and potential patients to identify those most likely to get sick, so that they can intervene before they do. So we may be getting calls from our doctor if we've let our gym membership lapse, or have bought too many cigarettes and chocolate bars.

How long before they start using data provided by fitness apps and the like? I'm not going to get into the privacy debates around this, or the obvious financial benefits for medical institutions, because these are things that will rumble on and work themselves out. But my main concern is, do I really want to know?!

I'm one of those people that hasn't visited my local doctor for the last ten years or so. I just never go I probably won't go until I feel like I need something treated that I don't think over the counter drugs will help. But if I was constantly aware of my health status would this change? Would I feel more paranoid about my health if I had a doctor calling me telling me that my recent life choices may mean I should get checked out? Probably. And what about those people that are already paranoid about their health? I doubt having all this extra information is going to calm them, I'm inclined to think it would make things worse.

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Also worth noting, that in the business world I think there is a threat of a 'digital elite' emerging – which I've written about before – where lower processes are automated and people without the superior knowledge of how to use digital technologies, struggle to progress within companies and find jobs. This is me speculating, but we've seen time and time again how technology does replace people.

When doing some research on how the internet impacts us socially, I stumbled across an article on the Verge by a guy called Paul Miller, who was paid for a year to live without the internet and to document his experiences. For those of you who haven't read it, check it out, it's a fascinating read.

Miller describes how the first few months without an internet connection were amazing and that he had a sense of freedom that was tangible (when I read this, I actually almost deleted all my online accounts on the spot). He read more, he got better at his relationships, he lost weight, etc. But as time went on things changed and he actually felt more excluded from society, because he wasn't online. His post is too important to sum up in a few sentences, but the last couple of lines really get to the crux of why we spend so much time on the internet. He wrote:

I'd read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I'd begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was "doing to me," so I could fight back. But the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.

When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won't have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.

But at least I'll be connected.

We spend a lot of time at diginomica writing about how digital impacts business and how companies are changing their models for the online era. But what's most interesting about this is that it's all about people and the social implications for online interactions are just as important. And it's the people online forcing the business models to change from the ground up.

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I don't get the benefits of being online too – I mean, my livelihood pretty much depends on it. I write online about things to do with being online, without the internet I'm penniless. Also, I've got a lot of family in South Africa and tools like Facebook are a great way of keeping up to date with their lives and keeping in touch. I've also made great friends and great connections on places like Twitter by talking to people that I perhaps would never have met. I also recognise that I probably learn a great deal by spending my time online and I love it when the internet makes my life easier (transport apps, for example).

However, I can't help resenting my time spent on the internet – if I don't log on I feel like I'm missing out and if I do, I feel stressed about all the information coming at me. This isn't a post that will have all the answers, but I just think we need to be aware of how online applications and information are impacting us socially. With the internet of things threatening to go mainstream, we are probably going to end up with even more data at our fingertips. And without sounding too much like the Daily Mail, I'm a bit worried about it.