Tuesday, July 24, 2018

In Defense of the Internet (Yes, the Internet, that Cesspool of Pop-Up Ads, Cyberbullies, Hate Speech, Privacy Invasions and Vladimir Putin)

   When the internet first appeared back in 1983, it was heralded as a network that could connect us all and maybe even foster world peace. Now it seems that nearly every article about online activity is negative.

Photo illustration by Joe Darrow
New York Magazine Select/All website
     Last spring, New York Magazine wrote "something has gone wrong with the internet":

The Internet Apologizes:
Even those who designed our digital world are aghast at what they created. A breakdown of what went wrong — from the architects who built it. By Noah Kulwin
— New York Magazine, 4/16/18

      Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, believes that the iPhone, the device he helped build, is too addictive. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, fears his creation is being “weaponized.”  Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, has blasted social media as a dangerous form of psychological manipulation: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”  Tony Fadell, known as one of the "fathers of the iPod says that he wakes up "in cold sweats every so often thinking, What did we bring to the world?”  

     Even Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, when he testified before Congress ticked off a list of everything his platform has screwed up, from fake news and foreign meddling in the 2016 election to hate speech and data privacy

     Just this week, 24-year-old Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson announced he was dropping out of social media: "It's an evil place and doesn't make me feel good."

      Meanwhile, however, seniors have been using the internet like crazy. The use of the internet for those of us 65 and older has risen steadily over the last decade and a half, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. In 2000, only 14% of seniors used the internet. In 2017, 67% of those 65 and older said they were going online. 

      Internet use is even more popular when you include younger seniors. Last November AARP came out with a study that found that over 90% of adults over 50 owned a computer or laptop, 70% have a smartphone and over 40% own a tablet. And across all devices over 7 in 10 adults 50 plus are on social media. Nine in 10 (91%) say they use the technology to stay in touch with family and friends.

     So which is it? Is the internet a cesspool of hate speech, pop-up ads, cyberbullies, privacy invasions and Vladimir Putin? Or does help us to stay close to family and friends; enable us to engage with our communities; provide the means to have goods, including hot meals, miraculously appear on our doorsteps, and enable family caregivers and health care providers to monitor a senior's well-being?

     All of the above, of course. The internet is just a tool. It can be used for harm or for good.

     I was reminded of that fact when I read a recent post by Molly Barnes, a friend of mine on Facebook. Now retired (for years she co-directed and taught at SunFlower, a unique, hands-on elementary school in Gulfport, FL), Molly describes herself online as "pretty old" (she graduated from high school in 1958). She lives on a ranch in rural Pasco County with her husband Andy (my former boss at the St. Petersburg Times). Here is her post: 

     "I have a love/hate relationship with getting old. Mostly, I love the so-called wisdom I have accumulated, and I love having had so many experiences along the way. Who knew that I would be so happy every day to live in the middle of a huge natural area? When I am out in the woods and swamp I rarely think about getting old in a physical way. This is still me, ten years old, full of wonder at it all. And now I really know the shrubs and trees and wildflowers and I am always learning more about this amazing world.

      Yet, if you were to ask me what the most important thing that has happened in my lifetime I would have to say it is the internet."
Molly Barnes with the Community Gardens project
     I have to admit I didn't see that last line coming, but it makes sense. Molly's use of the internet is nothing short of inspiring. She is a frequent contributor on Facebook, using social media to connect with her family (she has 8 grandchildren) and her community. She posts pictures of her pottery studio, describes the nature that surrounds her and ruminates often on the state of the union (which lately has worried her quiet a bit). I've especially enjoyed her posts about her work with the Dade City's Community Gardens Program. It provides public land so that children can learn to grow food on public land and then learn to cook healthy meals.

     Recently, Molly asked her Facebook friends to donate to help send a young man, an Eagle Scout who just graduated from high school, go to college. Because he is one of the Dreamers in the DACA program, he cannot get any loans.

     Here is part of her post:

     "I have loved this young person since he was seven years old, so clearly advanced and intelligent. When ICE was prowling our neighborhood, we signed up as surrogate parents for him and his sister. He has a wonderful family that still lives in the shadows of the undocumented. One by one, I want to make sure that these kids will zoom up to be the people they want to be. What else makes America great?"
      So far, she has raised over $1,000 for this Eagle Scout. All because of the internet.

      The internet isn't used by all seniors, of course. As that 2017 Pew study pointed out, income and education make a huge difference in who has access to technology. Social networking use is common among those who have at least some college experience (57%) and those whose annual household income is $50,000 or more (56%), but drops considerably among those who only have a high school diploma or less (20%) and whose households make less than $30,000 (23%). 

      Still, seniors on the whole value the internet, perhaps even more than millennials who take all this connectivity for granted. According to the Pew study, 58% of seniors say technology has had a positive effect on society.

      For despite Putin's attempt to disrupt our inter-connectivity, the internet provides us with an amazing way to reach out to others. And despite the hatred that you can find online, there is also a lot of caring expressed on social media. People offer condolences when their friends lose a mother, a father, husband, a wife, a child or a pet. Friends remember your birthday. People who you haven’t seen in years reach out. 

     Yes, the internet has benefited the alt-right and hate groups, but it also helped elect Barack Obama. Yes, the internet may have subsequently helped elect Donald Trump, but it also is strengthening the resistance against him.

     It is a means for all of us to get our stories out there.

    "It would have cost a fortune to air the ad on TV in the New York market, but through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter she inexpensively explained her working-class Puerto Rican roots and her demands for 'Medicare for all' and free public college tuition," the Washington Post pointed out after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a stunning upset victory in the Democratic primary in June. 
     Like Molly, Ocasio-Cortez and other first-time women candidates have seen the good the internet can do. Like Molly, they have seen it as a way to get their — our — stories out there. Take a look at these videos. They stand in testimony to the positive side of the internet and its story-telling power:  

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The 28-year-old community activist who tended bar and waited tables won the primary by 4,000 votes over Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 20-year Congressional power broker representing a heavily Hispanic district in the Bronx and Queens. Millions have viewed her ad. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez youtube video

MJ Hegar:  An Air Force pilot shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan, she was the first to use the viral online video as a political weapon. Her 3 1/2 minute biographical ad, called "Doors," has been viewed by nearly 5 million people. Thanks to the video, donations have poured into the Texas Democrat’s campaign to unseat Rep. John Carter, a Republican who has been in Congress since 2003. MJ Hegar youtube video

Amy McGrath:  A former Marine fighter pilot, she overcame a 47-point disadvantage in early polling to win the Democratic primary, defeating the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. Her biographical ad, seen at least 1.8 million times just on YouTube, helped propel her to victory without any official party backing. She has never held an elected office. Amy McGrath youtube video