Nov 1, 2012

Caught in the Web?

Stephen Cox

Staff Writer

Since my Erasmus experience in Salamanca began Iʼve been keeping a diary to account for my time here. During an idle moment the other night I flicked through the past few weekʼs worth of entries to see how things have changed since I arrived. Gripes about Spanish bureaucracy and depictions of odd characters Iʼve met drew both wry smiles and laughter, as I recounted the highs and lows since I left Dublin in September. However, you would be disappointed if, on reading my efforts yourself, you were expecting to find vivid descriptions of stereotypically fiery señoritas and drinking sangria in the sunshine—I was surprised and more than slightly concerned to realise how often Iʼd mentioned my computer and noted how much todayʼs world depends on technology for social interaction.


Weʼve all been there: reading the football news when we should be studying, flicking through photos at exam time. Ours is the first generation to have grown up with the internet; as such its ubiquity is a useful means of keeping in contact as well as a complete diversion from both offline work and recreation. It has completely changed how information is processed; what were once daily rituals like reading the newspaper have become more of a novelty. I know only a few people who still buy CDs, and fewer still who rent films from DVD shops. Itʼs probably for the best that I happen to enjoy old-school observances like reading the album liner notes or deliberating on what film to borrow whilst browsing the shelves, otherwise an already discomfiting internet dependance could become an outright addiction.

In Dublin I suppose I didnʼt take account of my own computer usage. While I would often browse the internet, the constant proximity of family and friends meant distractions and things to do were never hard to come by. However, in an unfamiliar city far from home, it has been only too easy to withdraw into the familiar online cocoon of instant messaging, checking who is online any time I feel homesick. Of course Facebook has its advantages; keeping in touch is difficult without it these days. That said, it is a modern-day byword for “procrastination”, responsible for countless lost reading hours and sleep never to be recovered. Even the writing of this article was interrupted by a Skype call; the irony was not lost on me, despite the first draft being handwritten. My sense of culpability at wasting time online has not been eased by my reading matter: Harold Bloomʼs The Western Canon. Apart from serving to remind me of classics I have yet to open, I was struck by how he bemoaned the short attention spans of his students, wondering if “a critical preference for context over text does not reflect a generation made impatient with deep reading.” These words were written in 1994–I donʼt know what he would have to say about the internet, in particular social networks, and its role in deflecting emphasis away from reading both for study and for pleasure. I am reminded of another American academic, George Mullendore, who memorably described the mobile phone as “the worldʼs longest umbilical cord” for the contact and control it gave parents. The internet can likewise be seen as the worldʼs longest communication cord—like all cords, one that can constrict as well as connect.

Perhaps Iʼm making too many generalisations and coming across as fogeyish, but for me, itʼs time for change. Yes, I want to stay in contact with home and with new friends Iʼve met since coming here. That doesnʼt mean the computer has to take up as much time as it does. Avoiding the web completely is misguided, impractical and unnecessary, but I would like at least to reconsider how I use the internet and to spend more time doing constructive, enjoyable things. There are books to read, films to see, places to visit, people to meet, and not nearly enough time for everything else in between. My guitar is looking lonely in the corner after a few days (fine, more like a week) without practise. Indeed, it is not always easy to make time to write a new journal entry; after inspiring this piece, I owe it a return with renewed vigour.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde declares that “all art is quite useless.” Harold Bloom concurs in The Western Canon, and believes that the simple act of reading will not make you a better person. If art and literature are useless, what does this make social networks? These days, I find myself leaning towards agreeing with an anonymous wit who made his presence felt in my flat. There is a section of the sitting room wall set aside for departing tenants to write a greeting, joke or memory from the year. The scrawl to which I refer reads “Big Facebook is watching you!” in block capitals. This is either a humorous observation of one particular websiteʼs influence on our lives or a damning criticism of Mark Zuckerbergʼs power, calling for us to take a stand; I couldnʼt possibly comment.

That said, Wilde also remarked that good intentions are a vain attempt to interfere with scientific laws; it remains to be seen if I can resist Facebookʼs charm during the Erasmus yearʼs quieter moments.

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