[Edited to remove a whole bunch of ugly code inserted by some Microsoft product and to make the URL an actual link. Please, please be careful when cutting and pasting into the post window, and please review and edit your posts! –KF]
In 1990 the average American household watched 6 hours of television each day. David Foster Wallace engraved this statistic into each of our minds over and over again in E Unibus Pluram. At first this statistic shocked me, as I had a hard time imagining when I could personally find time throughout my day to sit down and stare at the TV for six straight hours, or even break it up between my other daily obligations. And if I am not watching my full 6 hour share, then that means that there are others in this country standing on the opposite side of the 6 hour see-saw balancing it out with 8 or 9 hours a day! But in order to translate this statistic into its modern equivalent, we must account not only for the 2 hour and 14 minute increase in television’s average daily household viewership (nydailynews), but more importantly for the phenomenon of the internet.
One of Wallace’s principal complaints about TV is that it allows people to disconnect from real human relationships and to simply enjoy the viewing portion without being viewed; voyeurism. The internet’s effect is to multiply this tenfold. Not only are the possibilities far greater (endless, really) with the web, thus drawing an enormous amount of use that has revolutionized the way we live, but the most popular applications of the internet are aimed to do directly what Wallace asserts TV does indirectly: use technology to foster pseudo-relationships with other human beings. Examples of this are boundless and increasingly disturbing. One of the first and most consistently popular crazes was with Instant Messaging. It allowed people to interact in real time with high articulation and detail, without worrying about facial expressions, physical appearance, tones, other intricacies of conversation, or even responding immediately. This way people can think about how they are going to respond without the pressure of being seen by those they are talking to. Through chat rooms and multiple IM windows, one can interact virtually with the population of a party from their computer.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace allow people to use “profiles” to manufacture the images of themselves that TV allowed them to neglect. This takes the voyeurism a step further. Instead of one way watching of fake friends that to us will never exist, the watching goes both ways, this time edited and honed even more flawlessly than with television. The owners of these profiles have all the time in the world to create their own image without any pressure, so they try to present a better, more perfect, fake version of themselves to the world. Thus any communication or human relationship through this medium is simply the equivalent of two television characters talking through two TV sets. This two-way voyeurism draws massive amounts of popularity as it gives off the impression of human interaction far better than TV and requires nearly as little responsibility of contribution. The same can be said of dating websites like E-Harmony and Match.com, which match couples based on “compatibility”, which I suppose, in the pseudo-relationship world, is synonymous with love . Now with these sites the effects of the two-way voyeurism escalate. Not only are one’s friends and social life dictated by technology, but possibly even the creation of his or her family.
The internet, with all of the glorious contributions it has made to our society, is also rapidly increasing the speed at which we are secluding ourselves. It has made possible, far beyond the level that television did, a life in which our society’s epidemic of loneliness is not cured, but merely medicated. As the condition gets worse, we simply increase the dosage of this drug that is perpetuating the illness. If we saw no solution to overcoming our addiction to the television (which I remind you still exists, stronger than before), then we have an even greater task at hand in regulating our use of the internet.