Social Media and Becoming Howard Hughes

Yesterday I linked to the Becker-Posner blog which is kept by two University of Chicago professors: Gary Becker and Richard Posner. Becker is an economist and Nobel Laureate and Posner is a lecturer at the law school as well as a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. They’ve recently written two posts on “The Internet, Competition, and Censorship.” So much for your uninformed, baselessly opinionated blog (theirs and mine, I mean). So much for false humility, too (smileycon).

The significance of the Internet is so omnipresent that it can be difficult to pin down. It’s like asking what plastic is good for, or modern agricultural methods, but Becker and Posner give it whirl. On the whole, both give the Internet favorable reviews, though Posner’s praise is more measured because of some Big Nasties the Internet facilitates like the loss of so much time reading flippant emails, online terrorist correspondence, and traffic accidents (that would be accessing the Internet on your iPhone).

Posner, as an aside, is quite fascinated with disasters. You can see his Big Think interview here.

The Internet is not a static thing. That my memories of a world not yet influenced by the Internet are pretty scant naturally makes me more sensitive to changes that have occurred within the Internet itself.

The Internet is a more malleable technology than the telegraph or telephone. In fact, one of its main feats has been the incorporation of many agèd communication technologies. I talk on “the phone” over the Internet, I watch “TV” over the Internet, I read “newspapers” and listen to “the radio” over the Internet. The Internet has not yet become my only friend, but it might were I not so aware of its boring seduction.

The Internet is like life pornography: a very stimulating representation, but it will turn you into Howard Hughes if you don’t watch out.

In Posner’s measured praise for the Internet, he notes that “communication and information flows were rapid before the Internet.” If we take social media sites as a starting point then we would say that human relationships worked pretty well before Facebook, Twitter, etc.

In this sense, social media sites might prove irrelevant in terms of changing the character of human relationships, though they might alter the breadth and frequency of human communication. The mistake would be nostalgia—a lingering for simpler moral times—or an uncritical commitment to realize the extent of technology’s potential.

Vigilance, traveler. Not farewell, but fare forward.

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