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We live in a world where reality is so interwoven with technology and social media that it can be difficult to distinguish the real from the virtual in the day to day. Many have become completely dependent on their technological devices for social interaction, entertainment, and academics, proving that it has truly infiltrated almost every important aspect of our culture. Why wouldn’t people want to engage with the Internet? It is faster, more efficient, more convenient, and accessible in the palm of one’s hand or from the comfort of one’s living room.

This semester, I decided to take this class, You are what you Tweet: Identity and Social Media, because I wondered about the people who go against the technological mainstream, and disengage from the ever-changing network of the Internet. What are the societal and social implications of people choosing to opt-out, both for those who make that choice and for those who don’t?

Approximately fifteen percent of the population of the United States does not use the Internet at all. If we add to this all of the people who consciously take a break from the Internet, weather for a period during the year, or even for a day each week, we are talking about almost a quarter of the population of the United States who have an active reason for not using the internet at some point in time. On this blog I have engaged with people as different as the Amish and campers from an all-girls camp in New Hampshire to figure out the basic who, what, where, when, why and how of internet abstention.

Some communities and surveys show different reasons, such as security or finances, for not logging in, but all of them have one thing in common: they seek the real conversations that they feel the Internet does not offer. I speak about this a lot on this blog, but in Sherry Turkle’s TED talk she addresses the difference between conversation and connection. When we are online we can connect with multitudes of Facebook friends, twitter followers, and have the potential to reach anyone with a smartphone or computer, but what is the value of those connections? Do they give one the same feeling of community? For those who go without Internet, the answer would most certainly be, “no.”

The Amish, Orthodox Jews, girls at summer camp, and my father are some of the most connected people I have ever encountered, but not in the way we now see it on the Internet. These people all sit around tables, face-to-face and have conversations with each other. This is the primary reason why their communities are so tightknit— their presence in one another’s lives means more, because it takes more effort than a keystroke to be there.

In the case of the Amish and Orthodox Jews, another type of conversation occurs—a conversation with their God. The Amish and Orthodox Jews both believe that by disconnecting to various extents, one clears a space in one’s mind for God, too often cluttered by technology or work. Though rejecting modern technologies is not the only ways these communities connect with God, it is certainly a large component.

While going without the Internet brings these communities closer within themselves, it can isolate them from outside communities. It has become harder and harder for the Amish to work without using computers, for example, and technology has forced a lot of them off of their farms and away from the land. Similarly and dissimilarly, a great challenge of every summer at Camp Onaway is each girl finding out who her, “real friends,” are. Every year, about the third week of Camp, the counselors begin to deal with girls in tears because some of their friends haven’t written them a letter. To these girls the counselors explain that for some people, handwriting a letter—putting it in an envelop, addressing that envelope, putting a stamp on that envelope, and putting it into the mailbox—is just too much work. This usually gives the girls a laugh since they spend eight hours a day outdoors, swimming, playing tennis etc. and find it amusing that their friends from home find it to be, “too much work,” to address an envelope. 

One of the reasons people value the Internet is because of the idea that it is a, “global community.” But while the Internet does make the world much smaller and connects people from across the world, it cannot be a truly global community because there are still people who cannot connect, or will not connect. And since a great majority of discourse occurs online in western society, people using the internet not only isolate those who do not, but also isolate ourselves from those communities’ possible contributions to these larger, world platform conversations.

My roommate is a graduate student in education and has come home and spoken to me about parents whose children receive free meals at school and who are on welfare, but still have an iPhone. Some how this does not surprise me. We have become so dependent on having the Internet there, at the press of a button, that we have begun to equate it with the same necessity level as food and water.

Better access should be given to the Internet by way of increase in education and physical, financial availability, for those that desire to use the Internet. However, better education should also occur surrounding productive Internet use, starting at a very young age. While technology is indeed a useful tool, it is just that: a tool. It is not a necessity, and in many cases distracts people from the most important things, people, and values in their lives. For this reason people must individually make an effort to balance out our virtual connections with our more meaningful conversations, in order to gain the most from both experiences and not isolate ourselves, virtually or tactually, from the world.

This video urges people get off their computers and phones and embrace the real world--yet it has gone viral on the Internet?


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