Ways the web has changed the world
Our list of things killed by the internet provoked indignation and sparked nostalgia. Matthew Moore looks at some of the reactions.
By Matthew Moore
When was the last time you checked Ceefax, received a hand-written letter, or displayed your holiday photos in an album?
If you’re one of the estimated 17 million Britons not connected to the internet, the answer might be “this morning”. But for the growing numbers of people who spend much of their time online, these and many other activities are dying out.
When the Telegraph published a list of 50 things that are being killed off by the internet, we were surprised by the thousands of passionate responses from readers. The article was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek attempt to explore some of the changes wrought by the web over the past two decades. Some of the entries were products and businesses — such as record shops, slide shows and telephone directories — whose decline has been well documented.
But it was the ways that the internet is changing the way we think and behave, and in the process killing life experiences and habits that have emerged over centuries, that drew the most discussion.
Top of our list was the death of polite disagreement, a trend that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time on internet message boards. Civilised society depends on rival groups biting their tongues and agreeing to rub along together, but in online debates people are often unable to accept sincerely held differences of opinion and accuse their opponents of having an agenda.
Memory and concentration also made the top 50. Google and Wikipedia have made almost any fact accessible within seconds, creating a culture where the retention of knowledge is no longer prized. As our memories become less important so our attention spans decline — what with tabbing between Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and Google News, it’s a wonder anyone gets their work done.
The internet can also be blamed for the decline of free time. Those rainy days that we would once have filled by re-reading a favourite novel or clearing out the drawers are now consumed by idle surfing.
Several of the entries reflect the falling prestige of experts in the digital age, although readers seem divided about whether this is a good or bad thing. The decline of respect for doctors and other professionals, thanks to the popularity of self-diagnosis websites, was seen by some as a positive trend but lamented as a victory for pushy hypochondriacs by others.
Our readers, nostalgic for a time when the internet did not dominate their lives, flooded us with suggestions for things missing from our list. Several people complained that handwriting appeared to be a dying art as keyboards follow up on their domination of offices by taking over classrooms as well. Others pointed to the disappearance of travel agents, estate agents and arcades from high streets as consumers flock to cheaper and more convenient online alternatives.
But it was the social changes that seem to perturb people the most. Many complained that their pub quizzes are being ruined by iPhones and Wikipedia, while one woman blamed the internet for making society more impatient: “Everyone wants everything at the press of a click!”
It would be easy to dismiss our list as technophobic but the internet has also changed things for the better. The end of the insurance ring-round, for example, or the elimination of the wait to know the latest sport results are unequivocally positive changes.
Many of the changes brought about by the internet are so gradual and pervasive that they can escape our attention. It makes sense for those of us who use the web every day to take stock occasionally, and think about the way it’s leading us.
As one commenter, Harry, wrote: “Embrace the internet, iron out its flaws but don’t dismiss it. It’s too valuable a resource.”
(www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/6207343/Ways-the-web-haschanged- the-world.html. Access on Sep. 20, 2009)
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