I thought it was obvious that modernity was awesome. Reliably clean water, efficient plumbing, ample electricity and good cellular coverage, not to mention temperature-controlled homes and abundant healthy food – all of this makes the 21st century very habitable. If our drinking water becomes toxic (as is the current case in deteriorating American cities), if our sewage system fails, if our power grid blacks out or if cell coverage drops, we have a right to be disappointed – these are small cracks in our society. It’s not that we are “addicted” to our modern amenities, or that we couldn’t survive in a forest if necessary. It’s just that we have successfully developed a high quality of life over the years, which we are comfortably accustomed to. Is this a bad thing? No! It’s wonderful.
The internet is as fundamental a utility as the rest of our infrastructure. Wireless connectivity to the worldwide web has become as integral to our lives as water and power, and even more essential than television and telephone access, whose wires remain strewn along our roads. We use the internet for everything. As I write this, my word processor tells me to capitalize “internet”, but I don’t because it has become a generic word: it’s the thing you are reading this on, the thing we all use every day, and likely take for granted. It is time to accept that the internet is a public utility – something we can demand reliable, affordable access to, just as we demand plumbing.
I’ve been reading articles about how problematic our internet addictions are, about how such pervasive online behavior is somehow crushing a precious vision of the past we once had, or how it generally levels all experiences into one generic aesthetic. Apparently we spend too much time on Facebook, message people too often, and somehow become less present IRL because our digital lives have taken over, the world much more Matrix-like as a result. I’m here to push back against such criticism: it’s okay that our lives are largely digital. It’s okay to spend time on our phones. I like being in touch with the dozens of friends back home I wouldn’t speak to without the internet, and I like participating in emergent online groups with whom I share niche interests. And it’s okay that so much modern space is similarly stylized in chic minimalism – it’s ubiquitous because it’s great. Of course we should monitor our online selves, exercise our bodies, breathe fresh air, have face-to-face conversations and explore unique tastes, but the alarmist attitude that things are out of control is blown out of proportion. It’s like people forget how well we have it, how amazing instant global connectivity really is.
I think there’s this misconception about the 20th century that without internet-ready handheld devices, strangers were chatting with each other in cafés and on the metro, somehow more in touch with their real selves, as if now we’re so much more closed off from the outside world because we’re too busy checking our Instagram likes. I’m pretty sure that even 100 years ago, people used their subway commutes home to pause, rest their minds, read their books and newspapers and ignore each other. Interacting in public space has always been difficult, specifically in big cities. It’s not the fault of immediate access to all information that we aren’t falling in love in public squares. It’s a natural reaction to anonymity.
And yet many cafés won’t provide wi-fi because… why? Do they think they’re fostering some sort of romantic past? I think people in these cafés are just more restless and bored, if not downright hobbled and deprived from virtual connectivity. Travelers are especially hurt by this notion of wi-fi-free zones.
When traveling, it becomes clear just how integral such connectivity is. In our home countries we rely on our data plans, trying to save our data by logging onto wi-fi when streaming videos or uploading personal content, but generally taking for granted that we can look up directions to an art exhibition in five seconds. Without a prepaid SIM card in Southeast Asia, we’re left with the free wi-fi provided by bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels, etc. Luckily, the developing word is eager to catch up, to prove itself as connected as anywhere else.
I recently bought a SIM card in Australia because the wi-fi there is so unreliable – virtually no café in Oceania has public wi-fi. In Indonesia, almost every single place, no matter how rustic, happily provides it. Poorer countries tend to take pride in their communal wi-fi access, while richer countries tend to privatize it, make connectivity something each consumer must purchase from Vodafone. It’s a separate debate and I don’t really care how it’s solved – we pay through taxes for citywide wi-fi, or personally for our own private connections, as overpriced as they are – so long as the web remains accessible at all times. (I vote for cheap public access myself.)
Yes, our behavior might be problematic. We should mind our personal habits with everything, especially something so novel and fantastic. And there is a social etiquette still forming, which we should all take care to observe. No one should be texting in movie theaters, reading headlines at dinner parties, Snapchatting at funerals. But is this the fault of 4G? Is it the internet’s fault that people have social anxiety and turn to their phones when standing alone at a party? I think not – shyness has simply lacked such an engaging shield until now, shamelessness never knew such bounds. Why do we blame the apps? Obviously there are people who still meet in public, who still start conversations. There are successful dates where neither person pulls out their phone. Do we blame plumbing for people taking long hot showers? Do we blame infinite electricity for people buying too many appliances?
It’s totally valid to critique our behavior, to wonder if we’re too obsessed with followers, retweets and online debates. Yes, our interactions are changing, and it’s weird, and social media must continue to be studied. It’s new and strange to have every argument easily settled by facts online – we might indeed abuse it (especially with the many lies circulating that pass as „news“). But it’s not the fault of the internet. This existential crisis is merely one of ecstatic opportunity. Something is wrong, though, if we can’t access this wonderful thing that transforms our lives so greatly. The industrialized planet should be drowned in access, and we will learn more and more to live in harmony with it.
In part 2: A case study of Berlin on iHeartBerlin.de
Artwork by the author