There’s a second culture war in the 21st century, and it’s as modern as the first. The new one arises from a lament over how much time we spend on the Internet versus how much time we’re doing useful things that we don’t actually need to be on the Internet for, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal laments.
It may be an exaggeration to say we spend more time on the Internet today than ever before, though if you don’t count video-game time, let’s call it “more than ever.” In 2013, the average American was online 32 hours per week, according to the Pew Research Center. And that’s very likely an underestimate—Pew didn’t ask people to specify how much time they spent online, and they only asked about use during daytime hours.
As Madrigal says:
I’ve gotten to the point now where my phone is more indispensable to me than my computer. I hate it when I have to tap on a screen with my finger all the time. Even worse, I feel a sting when I’m just staring at that screen. When I really want to do something other than watch cat videos, I turn to Google—and it’s easier than ever to do so. If you look at the tools we use every day, the Internet has grown even more indispensable: we can upload high-quality, automatically generated graphics, share tens of thousands of photos, and contribute content of great quality and quantity to almost every subject imaginable.
This is a straw man—I don’t think we spend more time on the Internet than we ever have. Yet that almost not-inconsiderable hour of time is often times the equivalent of a weekend or a night out. I’m sure there are some powerful reasons for this (email!) and some good explanations for it (the digital age!”), but they’re not the only explanation. We spend a lot of time on a lot of things we don’t really need to do!
What we’re seeing is the aftermath of a multitasking revolution. It’s not a revolution that anyone in the television industry wants to admit exists, but it’s one that’s been noticeable over the past decade: TV ads—specifically, the ones aimed at young male consumers—are increasingly animated by messages inane enough to be spoken by an incredibly well-trained talking-carrot snowman. Those are pretty much the same types of messages that your friend’s dad must have been scrolling through before he died.
I don’t want to insinuate that a mess of junk doesn’t take up a lot of time that could be used better. Even so, we should probably spend a lot less time living in the digital jungle, which is good for the people who need to consume information and other things without invading the data that your friends and algorithms are built to gather about you.
Some parts of it are certainly more important than others, obviously. But I think one key difference is that the pace of change has accelerated far faster than it did in the TV era. TV started looking outdated decades ago—there were new entertainment options every few years, but you didn’t know how or even if they would be succeeding. When that changed, millions of viewers who had fallen under cable’s spell (or trusted the friends and networks they grew up with) shifted en masse to one particular network. But that network was, well, slow to react to the needs of audiences. There were instances of bold new ideas—mostly for baseball, of course. But there were also many mishaps, and enough mistakes to warrant a single episode devoted to the classics.
The Internet thrives with new ideas, and so far it’s doing this in bursts and we can’t keep up. It’s impossible to create a consistent new approach to user-generated content or chat-based entertainment or Rorschach-style testing—it’s the only time I’ve seen such a divergence between the structure of web-based interaction and the structure of the mediums we’re used to.
There are some fortunate aspects of this effect, and you can’t blame a platform, or its platform owner, for making money on it. So be grateful, digital natives: You’re able to integrate evolving technologies into your own lifestyle much faster than the Internet-dependent generations before you. But in doing so, we will likely spend less time on the Internet in the future—and spend it to do things