We Are All Addicted to the Internet

Jared B. Keller summarizes some research on Internet addition:

The cognitive-reward structure offered by services like email and social media are similar to those of a casino slot machine: “Most of it is junk, but every so often, you hit the jackpot.” This is a symptom of low-risk/high-reward activities like lotteries in general. As researchers found in a 2001 article in International Gambling Studies, systems that offer a low-cost chance of winning a very large prize are more likely to attract repetitive participation and, in turn, stimulate excessive (and potentially problematic) play. Although the stimuli are different (the payoff on the Internet being juicy morsels of information and entertainment rather than money), Stafford says that the immediacy and ubiquity of Internet “play”—i.e. being able to check your tweets or emails on your phone with no major transaction cost—only increases the likelihood that someone will get sucked into a continuous cycle.

If you answer yes to five or more of the questions below, you may be addicted to the Internet:

01. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?

02. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

03. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?

04. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?

05. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

06. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational, or career opportunity because of the Internet?

07. Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?

08. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

Oh come on, #5? I am sure that has happened to everyone. Every day.


(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Paul Miller Reflects on a Year Without the Internet

On April 30 of 2012, Paul Miller took a hiatus. From the internet. For one year. 

How did his experiment go? He divulges in this excellent post on The Verge:

At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.

A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.

This is a profound observation:

As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.

I used to be able to read two hundred pages in one day. Now, I consider myself lucky if I can get fifty pages done in one sitting without itching to grab my phone or computer.

But reading on, we learned that Paul’s experience without the Internet markedly changed after the first months of freedom:

So the moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren’t hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

I’ve linked to Paul Miller’s past posts. The archive is here.

Michael Santos and the Power of the Internet

Michael Santos spent 25 years in jail. When he got out in 2012, he experienced the wonder of the Internet. Writing in Salon:

As a prisoner, I could not access the Web directly. Staff members oversaw policies that placed enormous barriers between the people inside boundaries and society. In the prisons where I served my sentence, prisoners were even prohibited from accessing electronic typewriters. They had their reasons, I suppose, but blocking people inside from using technology did not go far in preparing them for success upon release.  By the late 1990s, I became so hungry to experience this new tool for myself, I created indirect ways to access the Internet. Connecting with society and making efforts to prepare for a law-abiding life upon release was a priority for me, and I had to figure out ways that I could overcome the obstacles imposed by prison rules that blocked prisoners from computers.

After reading numerous magazine articles about how people were launching websites, I wrote out a web design. It wasn’t much. I simply wanted a place to publish essays, articles, and profiles I wrote about other prisoners. I was still a citizen of our democracy, and as such, I felt that I had a duty to share my observations with taxpayers. I sent my web design to people from my support network and they coordinated the development of my first website. It was simple, but it served the purpose of allowing me to use it as a tool to document my journey through prison and to write about the experiences of others. Throughout the final decade of my imprisonment, I published thousands of articles on my website to help others understand prisons, the people they hold, and strategies for growing through confinement.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of his story is that he was publishing important, material work while in prison (linked above) and once he got out of jail, the Internet propagated his discovery.

The San Francisco Chronicle profile of Santos, published last year, is excellent.

FedEx versus the Internet

Question: When, if ever, will the bandwidth of the Internet surpass that of FedEx?

That’s the question that Randall Munroe tackles in his latest “what-if” blog post. His conclusion? 2040. That answer depends on this huge assumption: if Internet transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates on hard drives, SD cards, etc.:

Those thumbnail-sized flakes have a storage density of up to 160 terabytes per kilogram, which means a FedEx fleet loaded with MicroSD cards could transfer about 177 petabits per second, or two zettabytes per day—a thousand times the internet’s current traffic level. (The infrastructure would be interesting—Google would need to build huge warehouses to hold a massive card-processing operation.)

Cisco estimates internet traffic is growing at about 29% annually. At that rate, we’d hit the FedEx point in 2040. Of course, the amount of data we can fit on a drive will have gone up by then, too. The only way to actually reach the FedEx point is if transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates. In an intuitive sense, this seems unlikely, since storage and transfer are fundamentally linked—all that data is coming from somewhere and going somewhere—but there’s no way to  predict usage patterns for sure.

While FedEx is big enough to keep up with the next few decades of actual usage, there’s no technological reason we can’t build a connection that beats them on bandwidth. There are experimental fiber clusters that can handle over a petabit per second. A cluster of 200 of those would beat FedEx.

If you recruited the entire US freight industry to move SD cards for you, the throughput would be on the order of 500 exabits—half a zettabit—per second. To match that transfer rate digitally, you’d need take half a million of those petabit cables.


James Lasdun on Being Stalked

“I Will Ruin Him” is a haunting story by James Lasdun, who found himself a victim of stalking by a former M.F.A. student of his:

It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.

Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen’s former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: “I’m told he …” “I hear he …” “Everyone knows he ….”)

The abrupt ending, though? It’s because the essay is a prelude to Lasdun’s new book Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.

Paul Miller’s Internet-Free Year

Paul Miller, a technology reporter, is currently on a quest to go without the Internet for a year. He occasionally reports on his progress in The Verge. In this post, he recounts his life without the Internet after three months:

The first two weeks were a zen-like blur. I’ve never felt so calm and happy in my life. Never. And then I started actually getting stuff done. I bought copies of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Aeschylus. I was writing at an amazing pace. For the first time ever I seemed to be outpacing my editors.

Without the internet, everything seemed new to me. Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred. Every conversation was face to face or a phone call, and filled with a hundred fresh nuances. The air smelled better. My sentences seemed less convoluted. I lost a bit of weight.

Three months later, I don’t miss the internet at all. It doesn’t factor into my daily life. I don’t say to myself, “ugh, I wish I could just use the internet to do that.” It’s more like it doesn’t exist for me. I still say “ugh, I have to do that” — it’s just not the internet’s fault.

If you don’t read the whole post, this is the key takeaway:

I know I’m not the first person to recognize this, but much of the charm in “taking a break from the internet” is that you end up viewing the real world through the prism of “I’m taking a break from the internet right now,” and then you get back on the internet to tell everybody about what a good time you had. A face-to-face coffee date is very different than Facebook flirting, and a really great use of time, but it’s easiest to see the novelty and value of it when you have a Facebook to compare it to. “Disconnecting” and “disconnected” are two very different things, as I’m discovering.

So: it’s good to take a break, but your motivation to take such a break will vary from everyone else’s.

The Trouble with Online Education

In the wake of Coursera announcing partnerships with twelve new universities, Mark Edmundson (author of Why Read?) has a fantastic op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that online educations tends to be a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Internet teacher, even the one who actively responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is the gist of the message:

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. 

I absolutely agree. The best professors I’ve had in college were magicians in front of the stage: able to guess student’s emotions, and to tune their lecture accordingly. The corollary to the argument is that Internet courses can work, but it requires extremely motivated students to slog through the lectures. This motivation, arguably, is easier to find (and tune) in students who attend live lectures and interact with their professors.

“We Met on the Internet”

Andre Torrez writes about the stigma of “meeting on the internet”. It’s a thoughtful piece:

At one point that night the entire group decided to walk from the place where we ate to a bar about four blocks away. As these things go our group quickly turned into a long line of people walking along the street. This was a Saturday night so there was the usual crowd of bar goers and people out for dinner.

While standing at a red-light (half our group continued walking, talking, and not worrying if the group behind them would catch up) a woman also waiting to cross asked, “What is this?” She was smiling like she was about to discover something that was cool. She looked hopeful.

“You will laugh if I tell you,” I joked. I was fairly intoxicated. I couldn’t think of anything better to say.

“No, tell me. What is this?” She looked at the group. We are from all parts of the country (and world) and so we are dissimilar both physically and the way we’re dressed.

“We are all members of a web site. We met online and are now meeting in person.”

She laughed. Not even in the, “okay, I get it” way or “that’s cute” way but more like the “that is very stupid” way. She said something like, “Yup, you were right,” and continued on her way.

I think this is a post that will develop into something more.

Using Neural Networks, Finding Cats on the Internet

You’ve gotta love neural networks. Google certainly does, as scientists at the secretive Google X laboratory taught 16,000 computers to recognize cats:

The neural network taught itself to recognize cats, which is actually no frivolous activity. This week the researchers will present the results of their work at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Google scientists and programmers will note that while it is hardly news that the Internet is full of cat videos, the simulation nevertheless surprised them. It performed far better than any previous effort by roughly doubling its accuracy in recognizing objects in a challenging list of 20,000 distinct items.

The research is representative of a new generation of computer science that is exploiting the falling cost of computing and the availability of huge clusters of computers in giant data centers. It is leading to significant advances in areas as diverse as machine vision and perception, speech recognition and language translation.

Although some of the computer science ideas that the researchers are using are not new, the sheer scale of the software simulations is leading to learning systems that were not previously possible. And Google researchers are not alone in exploiting the techniques, which are referred to as “deep learning” models. Last year Microsoft scientists presented research showing that the techniques could be applied equally well to build computer systems to understand human speech.

Don’t miss the accompanying video in the article.

Sergey Brin on Internet Freedom

Over the weekend, The Guardian published an article in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin was interviewed. The Guardian distilled Brin’s views as follows:

The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Today, Brin took to Google+ to clarify his position and explain that his thoughts “got particularly distorted”:

Today, the primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent. This has been far more effective than I ever imagined possible across a number of nations. In addition, other countries such as the US have come close to adopting very similar techniques in order to combat piracy and other vices. I believe these efforts have been misguided and dangerous. 

Lastly in the interview came the subject of digital ecosystems that are not as open as the web itself and I think this portion has led to some misunderstanding of my views. So to clarify, I certainly do not think this issue is on a par with government based censorship. Moreover, I have much admiration for two of the companies we discussed — Apple and Facebook. I have always admired Apple’s products. In fact, I am writing this post on an Imac and using an Apple keyboard I have cherished for the past seven years. Likewise, Facebook has helped to connect hundreds of millions of people, has been a key tool for political expression and has been instrumental to the Arab Spring. Both have made key contributions to the free flow of information around the world.

It’s good to know that Brin loves Apple products. Also of note is Brin’s recommendation to check out Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet.