20 years ago, I was eight. A young lad with a skip in his step and not a care in the world but having a Pokemon break its way out of an ultra ball. It was a simpler time back then. A time where we sat around the dinner table talking…err…sat around the TV eating dinner not talking at all, playing Super Nintendo, and listening to music on the radio or through a glorious tape deck. Ah yes, the tape deck and physical media. Back when you actually owned a song or album, not just rented the ability to play it.
Then one day, I came home from school to my dad frantically plugging in hard drives to the computer, clicking and dragging like there was no tomorrow.
‘What are you doing, dad?’ I asked.
And that’s when he pointed up to the screen. He was pointing to a tiny cat wearing headphones. ‘This is a new thing called Napster,’ he replied. ‘I can go on here and download any song I want. Anything! It’s great. And it’s all free.’
This being 1999, I asked him if he could download Blink 182. A click here and a click there, he had Enema of the State all queued up. I was baffled. Flabergasted. Gaffawed. The only type of music I’d ever been exposed to was tape, radio, and of course my dad’s record collection. Was he serious that we had access to any song ever created right at our fingertips?
He spent days on Napster. I’m not exaggerating. Days. After a while, he couldn’t download anymore. The site wasn’t taken down (yet, at least), he just ran out of storage space. Our computer hard drive only had about 50 GB of space on it, plus the three or four externals we had lying around, and he filled them up no problem at all.
It wasn’t until about 11 years later when I was 19 that the power and scale of the internet really hit me for the first time. Until then I’d used it for Myspace, AIM, and TOTALLY LEGALLY downloading music from Limewire. But one day, my friend and I were on a trip and I was sitting on his bed with his laptop in my hands. Not using it for anything, just sitting there. A thought popped into my head, and I just opened up his laptop, typed it into Google, and boom, up came the answer.
This blew my mind. I mean, the shrooms blew my mind, but the fact that I could open up two pieces of aluminum, type in a question, hit a button, and an answer came up was the most amazing thing in the world to me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get information. For thousands of years, information had been held by the elite, the rich, and the educated. But now, thanks to this amazing tool, anyone could go onto the internet, whether on their own device or a their local library, and find anything they wanted. Sure, you could do that before with books, but looking through books takes time. It takes effort. It takes…well, it takes a lot of work. With the internet, you might have to try a couple different variations on your search terminology before you get exactly what you’re looking for, but 95% of the time, you’re going to get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it.
But now…don’t even get me started. Technology and algorithms have advanced so much that it might not even take you two shots at typing something into Google to get an answer. Hell, half the time it knows what you want before you even finish typing.
This became even more evident when I went to college. I had a professor who was…eh…probably around 70, 75 years old. He had seen it all and done it all. One day in class he had mentioned to us that for this upcoming paper, we should try going to the library instead of just going on the internet for the text. ‘Online, you can just find what you’re looking for immediately. With a book, you have to skim through a whole lot of crap before you actually get what you want. You have no idea how much you can learn by skimming through that crap.’
And he was so right. With the internet we don’t have extraneous information. Sure we have backlinks and hyperlinks that can get us to certain things if we want to go there, but really, all we do is find what we’re looking for and leave. We’re immediately satisfied. It’s a double edged sword, really. On the one hand, you have immediate gratification. On the other, you…have immediate gratification. There’s so much to learn in the in between, and I fear we’re losing that space. Pretty soon, there will be no in between. There will just be the beginning and end; the want, and the gratification.
The internet is an amazing tool. The most amazing tool in the history of mankind. It’s done a lot to advance our society and our learning, but it’s done a lot to hinder it, too. We need to remember that, along with TV, radio, books, and hell, just plain old conversation, that the internet is just a tool, a means to an end. Using one tool to solve a problem might be more efficient, but using multiple tools to solve a problem can help you solve it in an entirely different way, and hell, you might even learn something you never thought you would in the process. Try to remember that today, the internet’s 30th birthday.