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Few of us can resist the seduction of the Internet
by Mary Sykes Wylie
Let's face it: whatever expert opinion may say, we all know that the Internet is addictive. Of course, you can substitute "seductive" or "habit forming" to avoid the overused diagnostic buzzword, but have you ever noticed how often you visit your favorite site or check e-mail whenever you get stuck with a work-related problem or feel bored or restless or anxious or depressed? Relief is just a click away! Does this remind you of the cigarette break you used to take when you were still smoking, and for the same self-soothing reasons?
The Internet doesn't just provide information or social connection: it can be its own form of cybercoke. You can get a reasonably good high just zooming from alluring link to link, following the ever-receding golden thread of "one more hit," saving sites to your "Favorites," promising each in turn that it's the one you really want, the most important one—only to find your faithless eyes drawn to the next online charmer, and the next, and the next. Spend a few feverish hours mining quotes, opinions, and factoids about postcolonial African literature, Goldman Sachs's role in the Greek financial meltdown, Schoenberg's invention of the 12-tone scale, or even pondering the travails of poor Lindsay Lohan, and you get the heady sensation that you must be acquiring enormous erudition of some sort, even wisdom—and in such a short time period.
At this point in your search for the perfect website, you may take a quick break to check into your Facebook page. There you find something like a huge, noisy, festive bash being held at your house, only nobody told you about it, and so when you unlock your door, you see 50 or 100 or 500 extremely cheerful people, most of whom you don't know and haven't invited to a party you weren't aware you were throwing. But you hang around and have a few (virtual) drinks, noodle with your profile, decide which of the new people who've mysteriously turned up on your page you want to get to know, follow various links, and before you know it, an hour or two have passed.
Refreshed by all that cyber-pressing of the flesh, you return to more serious tasks and allow yourself to be sucked back into the encyclopedic Internet tsunami of all human knowledge—yours to plunder at will! It's like getting very rich very fast—the more you see, skim over, or save for "later," the more intellectual capital you feel you're accumulating, the higher the number in your IQ portfolio, the bigger your brain balance. You speed along faster and faster, doing so many things at once—researching the article, checking into the Huffington Post, reading and sending e-mails, ordering a cute jacket that's on sale, talking on the phone, eating a sandwich—a regular Olympiad of multitasking! You can practically hear the crackle of your brain's neural networks prodigiously expanding at the speed of light.
And then the crash. Not the computer's, but yours. You notice that you're losing it—"it" being your mind. Somewhere in that mishmash—print-outs littering your desk, dozens of online articles, book chapters and blogs "saved" in Favorites, different programs, apps, e-mails, the uncompleted order for that jacket, all stacked up in layers of windows on your screen like planes endlessly circling the airport in the fog—you and your mind just disappear. Instead of feeling smarter, more in control, you just feel . . . depleted, numbed out, zombified. All of those threads you were following are now hopelessly tangled in a big, fuzzy ball where your brain used to be.
You turn off everything, including the lights, and sit quietly in the dark—no, wait! That's what you should do. Instead, you keep on mindlessly clicking, foregoing food, sleep, and bathroom breaks, following links randomly, who cares where or to what—weather report, Alternet, perezhilton, movie trailers, recipes, CNN, Travelocity, Ebay, Craigslist, zillow, Google Earth, cute cat videos (a genre, not a site), yourporn (a site, as well as a genre), and farther afield to ever-wilder Internet shores. Eventually, your body shrivels up to a little, wizened homunculus, with one hand still folded over the mouse, clicking, clicking, clicking. . . .
Just kidding! But melodrama aside, the Internet can be way too much of a good thing, its use deceptively easy as it encourages fantasies of both omniscience and omnipotence. On the one hand, searching the Internet actually increases brain function in older adults, according to a UCLA study led by neuroscientist Gary Small, activating areas devoted to decision-making and complex reasoning that aren't engaged by simply reading a book. But in contrast, multitasking—Googling, telephoning, e-mailing, talking, driving, or any combination thereof (you know who you are)—only makes us feel sharper and more mentally efficient, giving us a false sense of confidence in our mental acuity. Multitasking is basically imposing continual distraction and interruption on our brains: it isn't good for thinking deep thoughts, or really any thoughts.