Monday, September 21, 2009

The Internet's Threat to Civilization and Two Kinds of Ham

Among the moral and social implications of technology we have considered in this space over the years, the Internet looms large. You wouldn't be reading this blog without it, yet there are studies and articles out there that show how students are losing the ability to read sequentially, follow arguments, and write more than a sentence or two without the uncontrollable urge to use an emoticon.

At times I'm sympathetic with this trend of thought. After years of looking up material on search engines, I've caught myself reading ordinary text in the Internet way—hastily skimming through paragraphs of carefully assembled prose like a motorcycle gang blasting through Central Park. When I realize what I'm doing, I try to slow down, but the habit is still there. And some of the uncomfortable side effects of mass digitizing of information are disquieting. For example, libraries around the world are looking at their now-digitized piles of paper and microfilm and asking, "Why should we keep paying for all this expensive space to store something that we already have on a few dozen mainframe hard drives in one room?" And we won't even mention what's happening to newspapers.

But sometimes it takes a person with a longer perspective to show you that things are not as bad as they seem. Dennis Baron, a professor of linguistics at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has written a book showing that the same mixture of hope, fear, and nostalgia has accompanied the advent of every novel communications technology, all the way back to the invention of writing itself. I have read only an interview with the author, not the book itself, but Baron views the current anxieties over an Internet-overdosed society to be overblown. He thinks at least as much good as harm comes from the social-networking activities on Facebook and so on, and points out that students themselves—at least the better ones—treat overuse of emoticons as a phase to be grown out of as they learn how the adult world expects them to communicate.

A similar view comes from my experiences, now largely historical, in the rarefied world of amateur radio. Ever since the birth of radio itself, there has been a small cadre of individuals who have used the medium, not for commercial purposes (in fact the laws pertaining to amateur radio forbid it), but for the fun of it. So most countries have set aside bits of the radio spectrum for these hobbyists, known as radio amateurs or "hams."

I joined the ranks of hamdom while still in college, and for a number of years was quite active with a roomful of largely surplus radio gear and antennas sprouting from the roof of our house. As time went on, I came to realize that all hamdom is divided into two kinds of ham.

The first kind, of which I was one, delights in the technology itself. These folks are constantly building new rigs or buying the latest gear to try out new features. The presence of a live person on the other end of the communications link is merely a convenience to them, to prove that the system itself works over the distance required. To somewhat misapply Marshall McLuhan, the medium becomes the message—the way a thing is communicated overwhelms the content of the communication. This attitude does nothing to further human community, in the long run.

The second kind views ham radio as simply a means of communicating with other people. Their delight is not in the technology, which they often learn rather grudgingly, but in the ever-new surprise of who might be sitting at the microphone, key, or keyboard at the other side of the ionospheric link. Think of an ongoing party with members from every part of the world, and that's what attracts the second kind of ham. I understand that the late Marlon Brando was an enthusiastic ham radio operator at various times in his life, and I suspect he was this type of ham. Although I have no surveys to back me up, I suspect that this type of operator tends to stay with the hobby longer, since the novelty of getting to know new people is truly inexhaustible.

The microcosm of ham radio prefigured the macrocosm of the Internet in many ways. Both are basically global means of communication; both impose certain restrictions on the style of communication, the length, and how the other party can be accessed; and both require at least a minimum knowledge of technology. On the Internet, the vast majority of users couldn't care less about the technology unless it gets in their way. Most users are interested in the content, not the method. The few hackers and geeks who play with the Internet simply because it's technologically neat are welcome to their amusements, but I haven't run across any lately. Of course there are those who use it for nefarious purposes, but you will always have a few bad apples in every crop.

As time went on my interest in ham radio waned. I still have my rig sitting on my desk here in the study, but it's been years since I fired it up. In the meantime, the Internet has become as much a part of my life as using electricity, as it has for billions of others around the globe. I will not commit the error of saying the Internet is neutral and it's how you use it that makes it good or bad. Like any other technology that humans use, it tends to incline our actions in certain directions, and these directions are almost never exactly neutral. But on the whole, the Internet has allowed more people to communicate at less cost, and that tends to benefit society, whatever bad habits they pick up along the way.

Sources: An interview with Dennis Baron appears in the online edition of at His book, A Better Pencil, has just been published by Oxford University Press, which still believes in paper, for the time being anyway. And for those hams who are curious, my call letters are KD5DC.

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