Message: 27
Date: 9.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Get a Life?

Any significant social phenomenon creates a backlash. The Net is no exception. It is odd, however, that the loudest complaints are shouts of "Get a life!" - suggesting that online living will dehumanize us, insulate us, and create a world of people who won't smell flowers, watch sunsets, or engage in face-to-face experiences. Out of this backlash comes a warning to parents that their children will "cocoon" and metamorphose into social invalids.

Experience tells us the opposite. So far, evidence gathered by those using the Net as a teaching tool indicates that kids who go online gain social skills rather than lose them. Since the distance between Athens, Georgia, and Athens, Greece, is just a mouse click away, children attain a new kind of worldliness. Young people on the Net today will inevitably experience some of the sophistication of Europe. In earlier days, only children from elite families could afford to interact with European culture during their summer vacations abroad.

I know that visiting Web pages in Italy or interacting with Italians via e-mail isn't the same as ducking the pigeons or listening to music in Piazza San Marco - but it sure beats never going there at all. Take all the books in the world, and they won't offer the real-time global experience a kid can get on the Net: here a child becomes the driver of the intellectual vehicle, not the passenger.

Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab recently told me of an autistic boy who has great difficulty interacting with people, often giving inappropriate visual cues (like strange facial expressions) and so forth. But this child has thrived on the Net. When he types, he gains control and becomes articulate. He's an active participant in chat rooms and newsgroups. He has developed strong online friendships, which have given him greater confidence in face-to-face situations.

It's an extreme case, but isn't it odd how parents grieve if their child spends six hours a day on the Net but delight if those same hours are spent reading books? With the exception of sleep, doing anything six hours a day, every day, is not good for a child.

Adults on the Net enjoy even greater opportunity, as more people discover they can work from almost anywhere. Granted, if you make pizzas you need to be close to the dough; if you're a surgeon you must be close to your patients (at least for the next two decades). But if your trade involves bits (not atoms), you probably don't need to be anywhere specific - at least most of the time. In fact, it might be beneficial all-around if you were in the Caribbean or Mediterranean - then your company wouldn't have to tie up capital in expensive downtown real estate.

Certain early users of the Net (bless them!) are now whining about its vulgarization, warning people of its hazards as if it were a cigarette. If only these whiners were more honest, they'd admit that it was they who didn't have much of a life and found solace on the Net, they who woke up one day with midlife crises and discovered there was more to living than what was waiting in their e-mail boxes. So, what took you guys so long? Of course there's more to life than e-mail, but don't project your empty existence onto others and suggest "being digital" is a form of virtual leprosy for which total abstinence is the only immunization.

My own lifestyle is totally enhanced by being online. I've been a compulsive e-mail user for more than 25 years; more often than not, it's allowed me to spend more time in scenic places with interesting people. Which would you prefer: two weeks' vacation totally offline or four to six weeks online? This doesn't work for all professions, but it is a growing trend among so-called "knowledge workers."

Once, only the likes of Rupert Murdoch or Aga Khan could cut deals from their satellite-laden luxury yachts off the coast of Sardinia. Now all sorts of people from Tahoe to Telluride can work from the back seat of a Winnebago if they wish.

B-rated meetings
I don't know the statistics, but I'm willing to guess that the executives of corporate America spend 70 to 80 percent of their time in meetings. I do know that most of those meetings, often a canonical one hour long, are 70 to 80 percent posturing and leveling (bringing the others up to speed on a common subject). The posturing is gratuitous, and the leveling is better done elsewhere - online, for example. This alone would enhance US productivity far more than any trade agreement.

I am constantly astonished by just how offline corporate America is. Wouldn't you expect executives at computer and communications companies to be active online? Even household names of the high-tech industry are offline human beings, sometimes more so than execs in extremely low-tech fields. I guess this is a corollary to the shoemaker's children having no shoes.

Being online not only makes the inevitable face-to-face meetings so much easier - it allows you to look outward. Generally, large companies are so inwardly directed that staff memorandums about growing bureaucracy get more attention than the dwindling competitive advantage of being big in the first place. David, who has a life, needn't use a slingshot. Goliath, who doesn't, is too busy reading office memos.

Luddites' paradise
In the mid-1700s, mechanical looms and other machines forced cottage industries out of business. Many people lost the opportunity to be their own bosses and to enjoy the profits of hard work. I'm sure I would have been a Luddite under those conditions.

But the current sweep of digital living is doing exactly the opposite. Parents of young children find exciting self-employment from home. The "virtual corporation" is an opportunity for tiny companies (with employees spread across the world) to work together in a global market and set up base wherever they choose. If you don't like centralist thinking, big companies, or job automation, what better place to go than the Net? Work for yourself and get a life.

Next Issue: Year 2020, the Fiber-Coax Legacy

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[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.09 September 1995.]