Does the Internet make us miserable?
It was an old friend’s birthday on Friday; old friend in the sense that we were friends in the 1960s and 1970s and that I haven’t seen him since 1980. His birthday remains lodged in my memory because it was 8th January, two days after everyone else in our community took down their Christmas decorations, but in his house the tree and decorations remained until his birthday celebration was passed. (Perhaps it was some compensation for having a birthday at such an unpromising time of the year, how many times must he have received gifts at Christmas and been told that they they were for his birthday as well?)
It is not that he is beyond contact, there have been many opportunities since 1980 to call at his parents’ house and ask for his address; it’s just not knowing what to say. An Internet search quickly produced pictures of him and his family on a campervan tour of Europe some years ago, but the person looking out from the photographs was not the person I knew, just as I am not the person he knew.
In former times, these questions did not arise. The possibility of viewing the holiday snaps of someone one had not seen in thirty-six years would have remained in the realms of science fiction. Even in 1980, who would have thought it possible that a generation later, people could search the world for their former friends whilst going no further than their desk?
Sometimes there are moments when it seems that all the technological potential has not brought the happiness we might have anticipated. When we communicated in the old ways, our communications were, for the most part, positive. We would hardly have continued a written correspondence with someone who wrote only of bad news and social conversations on the telephone, insofar as we could afford them, were cheerful occasions, because we certainly would not have spent money on calls that made us miserable.
Communication now seems an altogether different matter. Of course the Internet brings much that is cheerful, much that we would welcome, but it also reminds us of lost opportunities, of failures to keep in contact, of those who brought pain to our lives, as well as those who made us happy. Studies show that social media use by young people tends to be about projecting exaggerated impressions of success and wealth, that it contributes to unrealistic expectations and a sense of inadequacy among those who accept at face value the postings they see. We never had these problems in the past, perhaps we all need an education programme in how to be sceptical. Personally, the Internet reminds me that I have frequently not been a very good friend and that, rather than doing Internet searches, perhaps a pen and paper would be a step towards the redemption of the situation.