Digital Self-Defense

27 05 2011
Nation of Pinheads

Zippy: naturally immune. (With fond acknowledgement to Bill Griffith; Click photo to find out more.)

Never mind the zombie apocalypse, the Internet will eat your brain.

Twitter, Facebook, and the 24/7 connection are changing the way our minds process information, making us ADHD addicts to the dopamine kick of message flags.  We spend more time in Farmville than we do with the family pets.

I expect these fears are valid, but exaggerated.  The dangers unquestionably exist.  But it’s the same danger we face from other insidious competitors for our hearts and minds, for example, news peddlers and advertisers.  Too much information, too much of it junk, all of it carefully crafted to push our buttons so we can’t look away.  What we all desperately need is a course in self-defense.

Any idiot can put up a website and claim that the world will end in October, or that he can sell you a kit to detoxify your blood for only $9.99.  The Internet is full of lies, damn lies, and snake oil.  It is also an extraordinary database filled with a wealth of information.  The answer to any question, from which foods increase iron absorption to what are the lyrics to Shoo-Fly Pie, are mere clicks away.

Teasing out the truth from the bull dada is no easy task, but with a bit of research, one can learn which websites are reliable and which are suspect.  For example, if you are looking for medical information, the Mayo Clinic’s site  has a high reputation for accuracy without hysterics.  Whereas a visit to WebMD is likely to leave you with a case of hypochondria and two cases of pills.  It’s a little like the difference between NPR and Fox News.  (For more details, I recommend this article by Virginia Heffernan for NY Times Magazine)

Evaluating the reliability of website information and learning how to spot scams and scum ought to be a module in every media literacy class, and media literacy should be required in every high school, if not middle school.  It should be taught as Internet 101 to every adult who goes online, right along with how to send an email and open an attachment (or don’t!).  The ABCs of critical thinking ought to be taught in kindergarten.

We need to understand what our psychological weaknesses are and how the Internet plays on them.  Chatting, socializing and playing games seem like pleasant, harmless pastimes, and in fact, social activities define our humanity at a very basic level.  So basic, that a technology that feeds into our need for those activities can easily become addictive.  Checking for messages can become compulsive.  So can friend-bagging on Facebook just to run up trophy stats, or constant Twittering to maintain your presence at a non-stop virtual party.  Internet self-defense includes knowing when to disconnect and walk away.

Take long walks without any technology at all.  That’s right, no tunes, no cell phone, nothing.  Just you and your thoughts, experiencing the sensations of being in the real world, unmediated.  Take along a friend (a real one, flesh and blood) and share a little silence, share a little conversation, share observations of what’s happening around you.

Meditate, work in a garden, climb a mountain, go canoeing.

The Internet is here, as unstoppable as moveable type.  Cell phones, blackberries, Tweets and our friends electric are a part of modern life.  This will, inevitably, change who we are as human beings the way written language did.  It will change our brains as spoken language changed us.  Some of the changes are unsettling, even frightening.  We debate Internet regulation and laws to protect our children from this digital apocalypse which threatens to turn us all into illiterate, manipulated, twittering idiots.

Our children do not need to be protected.  They need to be taught.  They need to be educated in how to protect themselves.  Everyone does.  We need to learn how to use this powerful resource, this amazing tool, to its best and richest advantage, and not allow it to be used as a weapon against us.

Anyone who does not learn will be, virtually, defenseless.

[Note: In looking for a visual for this piece I stumbled across “Nation of Pinheads” which rekindled my appreciation for the existential zen of Bill Griffith’s Zippy.  I don’t think I could have made it through college without it.  Zippy wouldn’t need to be protected from the digital age.  He dwells in a completely different, tangentially parallel, universe of his own.]




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