Tyler Cowen has a piece worth reading in Bloomberg about how the internet influences human happiness. His basic idea is that the internet incentivizes us to seek momentary happiness at the expense of long-term memory formation. That is, the internet tempts us to waste many hours scrolling through social media and cat videos when we ought to be spending those hours on quality time with friends, family, the community, and so on:
Consider the time I spend on Twitter. I can take a peek and have some fun pretty much anytime I want, and for free. Yet never do I think that I will someday look back and reminisce about all that time I spent scrolling through tweets.In contrast, I look back fondly on my time in high school, and how my friends used to ride bikes to each other’s homes to hang out and listen to record albums. I’m no longer sure how much fun it was at the time, or even if that matters — the glorious memories are in place. The same is true for the good travel experiences I have had, even (especially?) if at the time they were quite stressful or simply involved a lot of tedious legwork.
I have read other critiques of the internet and social media in the past, and one set of commentary that always arises in response to the critiques is this: Mostly, it's Baby Boomers and old people who struggle with social media use. Young people have no such problem. That response always rang hollow for me, but reading Cowen's piece, it finally sunk in. Maybe there's something to that criticism, after all.
For example, Cowen writes, "Online life is inducing us to invest less in our memories and long-term sense of satisfaction. It is pretty obvious from human behavior that, right now, the internet is doing more to boost short-term pleasures."
This is written from the perspective of a man who mainly uses the internet for the purposes of Twitter, blogging, and research. What's missing from this perspective are the opinions of those who use the internet to keep photo albums of all their most treasured memories. Or, how about people like me, who use the internet as a way to log exercise? Cowen actually uses exercise in his article as an example of long-term memory formation, but I just blogged the other day about how the internet and social media has inspired me to train harder than I have in years. That effect is real.
Long-time readers of Stationary Waves will even recall that I used the internet to help teach myself Bangla, and just yesterday, I started Hindi lessons on Duolingo. None of this would have been possible without the internet, of course, and all of it represents long-term undertakings toward the formation of memories and skills that can potentially last a lifetime.
Throughout the Nineties (for those of you who don't remember), we were frequently told that the Information Age was bringing with it untold economic growth, that that growth was real output, and that the world was changing in ways we were only beginning to understand. I'm not sure I believed it back then, but I do believe it now. More to today's point, though, is the fact that all this growth came with an absolutely enormous consumer surplus in the form of free maps, crowd-sourced information, product reviews, and so on. We have access to so much of the world's information now, without having to go somewhere and look it up, that the benefit to each individual is incalculable.
But I don't think Tyler Cowen is the kind of person who would attempt to learn a new language on the internet or take on a half marathon training schedule simply because it came pre-programmed into his smart watch's app. Not that he ought to be that kind of person, just that he isn't. Someone who doesn't use the internet in ways that facilitate long-term projects, someone who uses the internet mainly to "tweet," is bound to underestimate the internet's contribution to long-term happiness. I don't think a younger writer would have made the same mistake.
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