(This marks the first of five pieces to be presented this week, all written by the UBC Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program)

Let’s start with a confession. I am 29 years old and I don’t own a cell phone, a TV or a car. I do not have a subscription to a broadband Internet service! Gasp! This is by choice! GASP! For these reasons my mum regularly refers to me as a “Luddite” on phone calls from my home town Dublin, Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has one of the largest mobile phone ownership in the world. Market penetration has reached 100% (number of cell phones = number of people). If I had a cell phone, she reasons, she could text me wherever or whenever she wanted. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Hmmmm. I helpfully point out that she never really emails me very much, so how would another communication medium help? She doesn’t get it though, someday she hopes I will join the 21st century and “get connected”. And so, whenever I acquire some new mod gadget – in a recent photo she noticed that we have a flat screen computer in our home office area – I receive praise for my latent modernity. Hallelujah! This really is quite the role reversal. I complain about her watching the tele (Irish for TV) too much, driving to the shops etc and she thinks I am so not “with it”.

Wikipedia says:

“The Luddites were a social movement of English workers in the early 1800s who protested – often by destroying textile machines – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs.”

Luckily I don’t think this defines me so I think I can keep my nice flat screen, but my mod-mom is right; I am not with the current drive towards technology nirvana. Above everything else I like real face to face communication and day to day local community experiences. (Like the sound of that? Well get off your arse away from the screen you’re gawping at and get out into the real world!). Yet here’s the paradox and another confession: I am compelled, as a friend once diagnosed, to Google every passing thought. If I could, I would download the entire Wikipedia to my cerebrum. I would happily make the necessary terabytes of space available (although I’d have to delete quite a few memories of crappy 1970s and 1980s American TV series like “Threes Company”). I am addicted to the Internet. I love it, I love it. Touché maman, touché.

Current communication technology is lauded as the uniting force of the networked world society. The global proliferation of information on the Internet is so gargantuan that we can find out what is happening in remote parts of the world on an hourly basis, with streamed video images to boot. We can stay constantly in touch through email and instant messaging with people all over the world. Access to the Internet is on the rise; 65% of adults in the US logged on in 2002. Users are becoming increasingly committed; the average American spends over nine hours a week connected (including usage at work). For those with over 4 years of experience using the Web, this number increases from nine to 16 hours. 16 hours? That’s nothing, that’s not even my Wiki quota. The Internet is being increasingly domesticated and more people are bringing work home, leading to longer work hours. The Web is being used for school work by adult learners, university students and children. Then there are the gamers, the chat-roomers, the bloggers.
Usage is on the up, so the question is the Internet help us to achieve Enlightenment? Can the all knowing, all seeing Source of All Knowledge, deliver us from Evil? Or is just a bad habit? In other words is the internet good or evil?

In fact far from educating and uniting us, it can be argued that technologies like instant messaging, email and cellular phones, have worked to separate us from each other. For example, recent studies on the societal impact of the Internet have described that increased stress levels and decreased time available for socialising, are often associated with increased Internet usage. In a 2002 preliminary report for the Internet and Society online journal, Nie and Erbring conclude their study by commenting;

“Email use is an additional medium now available for communicating with friends and family, but one can’t share a coffee or a beer with somebody on email or give them a hug.”

No really, did they honestly think that was news to anyone? Touching though, very touching. Just like social scientists to end a report with the word “hug” *.

Accumulating data suggest a “displacement” theory of Internet use. Time online is asocial and competes with face to face socialising in the home or community environment. You could say that TV, and I know this is going to sound pretty damn shocking, is more social than the internet, in terms of face to face experiences. You can watch a movie or sit com together, laugh at the funny bits, cry, give each other a “hug” when it’s sad. How sweet. On the other hand, the Internet let’s you talk to as many strangers, sorry I mean online pals, as you want, for as long as you want, or for as long as it takes them to realise you are a complete bore.

Does anyone else think the internet is evil and getting in the way of our natural social interactions? I googled “evil internet” and low and behold the I feel lucky hit was a BBC article titled: “Bishop warns of ‘evil internet‘”, from April 8, 2000. Archbishop David Hope apparently has a healthy fear of the internet like I do:

“The danger is in having all this wizardry in individual homes which people never leave and where there is, as a result, no social interaction.”

I couldn’t agree more Archbishop, too many wizards running around inventing new dastardly computers and websites, taking us away from our family and friends, and er churches. So yes, apparently I am not alone, there seem to be quite a few people out there concerned about the impact of the internet on our social lives, and those who really think the internet is evil. So far: Internet 0, Evil 1.

So if the Internet is taking away from our social lives, is the unprecedented access to information at least helping us to inform or educate ourselves? 57% of users report that reading news online is a key activity and on average, internet users use books 12% more often than non-users. In addition this demographic was found to access other traditional forms of media more often than non users. However, this could be a reflection of the higher education and income of Internet users. Read: Internet users are still, for the most part, wealthy nerds. Communication via email and instant messaging ranks as the most important use of connection while surfing for information is a clear and often close second. Therefore: Internet 1, Evil 1.

As scientists, what does the Internet mean to us? As a PhD student, I connect for literature searches, bioinformatics databases, experimental methods sites, methods chat-rooms, negative results databases, PhD student help sites ad finitum. I lay awake at night, dreaming of a Wikipedia for Molecular Biology Methods, edited by disgruntled graduate students. Our love affair with the Internet has only just begun. With open access online publishing, streamed results may revolutionise the transfer of knowledge. Search engines are rapidly evolving to mine increasing amounts of data from literature and informatics databases. It makes my fingers tingle thinking about it, oh no, crap, that’s just my RSI. In summary: Internet: 1, Evil: 2.

In my opinion the Internet, the veritable Fountain of Knowledge, is essentially a good (versus evil) entity; it is how and how often we choose to use it that matters. If you miss out on face to face human interactions, you will miss out on experiences that cannot be substituted by a google hours of online time. Google, on the other hand, with its all new Chinese censored search engine, is looking more evil everyday. Ok, for my next search, I’m going to google…

* This is in no way meant to hurt the feelings of social scientists at large.