A few internet zombies live at my workplace, a public library. They’re people who are there, every day – all day, on the public computers doing what appears to be nothing of real value. Yes, I’m judging them. They do not appear to work, nor do they appear homeless; but they live and breathe by the internet.
Don’t get me wrong: not every person using the computers is an internet zombie. We have the scholars, the e-mailers, the “I just need to print this up” types, and the general business/pleasure internet users. Some of those users are there every day, but they’re not the zombies. Those are the normal internet users. Some even read or check out the occasional book. They will make eye contact, too, if necessary.
In contrast to the normals, the zombies, whose ages range from 18 to 85, spend all day on Facebook or Twitter or enrolling themselves in online home furnishings sweepstakes. Not kidding. I can see what they’re looking at, even though I’d much rather not. They don’t read books, and they are always alone. They only interact with us (librarians) if there’s a problem with their individual computer or the online connection goes down. And then they’re rude and dismissive. Those are the zombies.
I’m curious about them, and I’ve successfully resisted saying to them – one in particular – “Why are you wasting your life?” In an effort to understand them, I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. It’s both reassuring (we need real, meaningful human relationships and interaction, much of which cannot be achieved electronically) and chilling (many people are losing real-life interaction skills). It’s dense and thoughtful. She’s no technophobe, but she does believe in keeping technology in its place.
So how does one do this? It starts with mindfulness and intent, and she offers hints and clues throughout the book. These are some of my notes, loosely paraphrased:
1. Don’t confuse rapid response with meaningful response.
2. Don’t confuse constant e-connection (Facebook, twitter, etc.) with real, substantive connection.
3. How people behave with each other and relate to one another in society is crucial. We need to be more aware of each other’s humanity. Sometimes that is aided by electronic technology, and sometimes it isn’t. Ultimately, true connectedness in life means real, meaningful interaction with people. If that’s aided by technology, great. It cannot be replaced by technology.
What scares me the most about the internet zombies is that in spite of their internet addiction, they seem profoundly alone and completely unbothered by it. They never speak to anyone, they seem to have no real-life friends, and they have no social skills. The computer is their friend, but it doesn’t love them back.