Using the Internet, Questioning the Internet: Multigenerational Perspectives on Community, Authenticity, and Cyberspace

The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio was founded 74 years ago as Community Service Inc; in 1940 it began the organization that eventually became the Fellowship for Intentional Community. For the last 10 years, Community Solutions’ main focus has been to educate people about the necessity to reduce their fossil fuel energy use and CO2 emissions as a way to mitigate the climate crisis. Much of our research has been on the false technological solutions touted by government and industry, including quantitative critiques of the LEED building system and the electric car.

So the vexing questions of community vs. technology are embedded in our personal and work interests, habits, and output. While all of us working at Community Solutions have been television-less for years, we routinely use the internet to communicate, to source information, and to post our research and writing. We work with the local community on energy projects, but still spend a large part of our time on the internet, oftentimes in conversation among colleagues through blogs and Twitter posts, or learning through alternative news sources. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a 21st century organization doing without the internet.

We remember what life was like before the web, using card catalogs to find information in libraries and relying on magazines, newspapers, and broadcast news for current analysis. Now there’s an almost miraculous amount of information about the planet available instantaneously. It’s hard to overestimate the importance the web plays in the spread of information in a time of rapid environmental, political, and economic changes. Photos and commentary about the damage wrought by climate change and the quest for fossil fuels – including the damage from fracking, tar sands, and mountaintop removal – is visible on your desktop if you are tuned in to the right sites. Citizen journalists with smart phones offer an immediate alternative view of current events – and sometimes the only view. The seeker of historical truth can go down rabbit holes of information, unearthing ideas and facts that might have been hidden at another time.

But by its very nature, information technology is a masterful tool of ideological control and manipulation. In the past decades it’s been at the forefront of the globalization of culture.

Even a brief survey of recent articles about the internet should give the most avid user pause. From the health impacts of wifi, to copyright and speed issues, to the consolidation of media providers and the ecological impact of information technology, battles over the use and control of the web seem to be just beginning.

How can we navigate these dichotomies? Pat Murphy, 75, our Research Director and author of several books, including Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, uses the internet for some of his research. His work involves the accretion of detail and analysis of data – looking at longitudinal trends, especially on the kinds of technologies that have been proposed to deal with energy depletion and climate change. Over the last several years he’s followed the hopeful predictions surrounding technologies like biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and the electric car – seeing them peak and then stall. He’s also watched the predictions about climate change and how the reality has progressed much more quickly than scientists feared.

Pat says: “None of the stuff about climate is easy to learn. If you’re trying to find something on the internet, it takes a long time to find what you want and you have to look at the options and decide what’s useful to you. Like with any field, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff and that just comes from hard work. There are billions of documents on the internet and there’s no way that a person could ever go through all the urls to judge the quality. So it’s very important to develop qualified sources.”

Pat has learned to trust some of the data that government sites like the Department of Energy and The Environmental Protection Agency produce and post, but still finds he needs to do his own analysis on the data. He’s seen writers and researchers with agendas who will cherry pick data to show that, for example, solar power or the electric car are going to save us. He also turns to books. “Most of the philosophy or higher perspective on the situation I learn from books. Books are less susceptible to corporate manipulation and control than the internet. They have better quality control, a longer life, and a much higher density of information than magazines or electronic communication. Books are associated with communities of writers, printers, proofreaders, and a host of other people. A good book comes from this kind of human interaction between qualified people.”

Besides using the internet for research, we also use social media for communication and for getting the word out on issues that concern us, even though most of us don’t use it in our personal lives.

Faith Morgan, 65, Media Director, says: “If I weren’t in the organization I wouldn’t be using Facebook or Twitter and I probably wouldn’t be on the internet. I have lots of interests – painting and gardening and interacting with people, folkdancing, reading, building brick ovens – I have so much that I want to do that I would feel it’s a waste of time using the internet unless there is something specific I want to do such as research for my next film.”

That leaves it to Julia, 21, a junior at neighboring Antioch College and an intern at Community Solutions, to help us with Facebook and Twitter. Julia reads articles and blogs about energy and climate change and abstracts them into paragraphs and sentences for posting. Julia uses the internet for many more activities than the rest of us do.

Julia says: “As a student, I end up in front of a computer for 50-60 hours per week. We need computers for class, homework, and communication with friends and family. It adds up. On top of that – I grew up with the computer. From an early age, I have become accustomed to using it for entertainment, communication, and education. I might go online to research for a project, but I often get distracted – by interesting articles, pictures, conversations on Facebook, pins on Pinterest, facts about other places in the world, house prices in towns I may live in one day, how beehives are built in India, or even researching the ingredients in vegan marshmallows. It is wonderful to have so much information at your fingertips, but at the same time it can be easy to spend too much time on the internet.

“The urge to get on the computer at any boring moment is inevitable. Just check your Facebook real quick! Someone may have messaged you. Go look on Pinterest, you might get an inspiration for this paper you’re writing. Whenever I sit at a computer, I have access to a source of personal communication, silly videos, endless information, creative photos, crafty DIY ideas, vegan cupcake recipes – endless entertainment. Sometimes I literally have to turn off my internet access in order to focus when I’m working on homework. As well, I grew up with the internet. It’s difficult to imagine how I would get along without it. It is my friend when I feel alone, bored, sad, and distracted. Indeed, I cannot remember a time in my life when the internet was not somehow accessible, except in some of my travels.”

It’s precisely the amount of material on the screen that is disturbing to Pat: “A move from the original scientific orientation to an advertising orientation is one way the internet has deteriorated. For example, some of the Department of Energy sites are using more of a merchandising approach, using too many graphics – their site is more like an advertising vehicle and it makes it harder to get the information. There’s an overlay of social media that gets in my way.”

Nowhere is the phrase The Medium Is The Message more true than about the internet. The way that information is presented to the viewer can skew their sense of history, and their sense of the relevance of what they are reading. If you weren’t aware of the immensity of the issues facing mankind, you could spend days clicking through sites without recognizing the realities of climate change. You can get millions of hits on certain topics and still not have any insight into them; it’s a reminder that information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. The web is also all-encompassing and multisensory—huge parts of our population suffer attention deficit. People who imbibe media regularly also tend to be more fearful. News and compassion fatigue can lead to a sense of helplessness—there are so many wolves (or terrorists) that readers are unable to discern the real dangers of climate crisis or the fact that they can contribute to its mitigation.

Some of these issues arise from the nature of the medium, but there’s a sense that much disinformation is by design rather than by default, a view that has been confirmed a thousandfold over the last few years of revelations from Edward Snowden and others. Twitter feeds designed to take down the Cuban government; Wikipedia articles written or edited to reflect a government’s desired view; and studies by Facebook and others trying to manipulate their users’ emotions seem to be the tip of an iceberg many of us who depend on the internet don’t want to acknowledge. Yet we’ve seen information that was previously posted made more difficult to find, or simply disappear. The recent passage of the Right-to-be-Forgotten law means that the revisionist history that’s practiced could make the web more Orwellian still.

Faith says: “So much can be made up and posted on the internet. The ability to perpetuate propaganda on people has been intensified. Hold back the facts and send out the propaganda.”

Pat adds: “You have to remember that technology is really the province of corporations, particularly mass technology that deals with selling products. We are inundated with a level of advertising that is 10 times that of other countries.”

Snowden’s revelations remind us that whenever we are connected electronically, others can also connect to us. We’ve also read of people getting arrested or losing jobs over supposedly private communications via email or social media.

Pat says: “The year-old Snowden Affair may be the death blow for the dream. We are also becoming more aware of ubiquitous surveillance cameras, GPS in our phones, and the ability to track our cars. Smart meters, smart smoke alarms, smart thermostats, and smart appliances extend this concept into the home. Car, cell phone, home, and office are now set up for continuous surveillance by governments and giant corporations who provide the technology. Snowden exposed the collusion of internet suppliers.

“It was a great shock to find out that this was done without the consent of the people. It increased my disillusionment with my government. I thought that they were protecting me but it’s not true. Gathering up this data is a step toward a totalitarian state.”

Have the revelations changed his behavior on the web? “First I understand that everything I search on the internet and everything I say or write through electronic means is recorded. If I want to read anything on Cuba I assume I’m flagged as a suspect but I’m not going to stop searching in hopes that I won’t be noticed. Every social activist needs to know now that it will be easy to be picked up; they won’t have to search your house. The internet may be the most totalitarian device ever invented as we can be monitored so easily.”

It’s a concern shared by most of us, but within our families and workplace, there is a generational difference to the concern.

Julia, our intern, says: “The Snowden revelations don’t bother me, although they probably should. I remember in third grade learning that if I say certain words, the government would be able to track my conversations. However, I have never known anyone personally to be affected by that, so it’s hard for me to imagine that the government is really reading everyone’s emails and listening to everyone’s phone calls. Perhaps I wrote it off because it just did not feel real to me. It is still a disconcerting thought, and I hope our tax dollars aren’t used for things like that.”

Our ecological concerns make internet use even more complex. In his essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry noted that he’d “hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal.” Pat adds, “the answer to a lot of this is to really understand that what appears to be benevolent technology has multiple downsides to it and we’re now seeing that other great benevolent technologies like air conditioning are heating up the planet. All technology has a price to it that can be measured in climate impacts.”

So is it time to turn off computer screens the same way we turned off our televisions? It’s clear that we need to have boundaries around their use. We recognize that internet research needs to be tempered with other forms of communication with each other and with the world around us. But we also recognize our own role in contributing to the body of knowledge that others can access from the web.

Not only older people but younger ones seem to be pulling away from information technology, and specifically the internet. Although Julia notes that she’s heard students say things like “My computer is my life,” and “I would die without access to the internet,” one third of Antioch students are not on Facebook and are otherwise moving away from the internet.

Julia says: “When I survey the amount of time I spend doing meaningless, distracting things on Facebook – as much as I love those random Buzzfeed quizzes – I am embarrassed because that time could have been spent reading a good book, meditating, walking in the woods, volunteering on the farm, finally starting a craft project I’ve been wanting to do, having a nice conversation with a friend, or even napping.

“In many ways I feel the internet greatly impedes me. For one, the internet is a safety net for entertainment and boredom – I am almost never forced to find creative ways to entertain myself. Further, it encourages a constant work day. I feel there is a cultural expectation to always be accessible and able to work. There is an expectation that you will see an email and respond to it promptly and that you will be able to do your homework by tomorrow even if it was assigned that evening. At one time, people were done with their work because the sun set. Now, we can work until the break of dawn if we need to. That capability coupled with my own procrastination results in just that. I have lost balance with the natural rhythms of nature. As I begin to look critically at our society and culture, I’m seeing our inherent separation from nature and the terrible things that have resulted.”

Faith says: “I don’t get on my computer on the weekend unless if have to. If I have a big project I will be on it researching, I get really involved, otherwise I turn it off on Friday and not back on until Monday. This is disconcerting for people, that they can’t reach me by the internet.”

Pat adds: “If we think we can substitute face-to-face with tweets, I don’t think so. The feedback mechanisms are quite different. It’s not good for your mind, like eating bad candy, to take in so much information. People are not changed for the better. Nor can you do any contemplation or deep thinking. Face-to-face opportunities stimulate memories of the environment. There’s a great deal of communication in tone, body language, and very powerful conversation.”

In fact, it is in community and away from our screens that we often rediscover balance. In our own work community we bounce ideas and information off one another and often come to a more nuanced sense of the truth than we can come to individually. We have also found that, when in other communities where we can’t have immediate access to technology, we learn unexpected things.

Faith says: “Last year I was at Twin Oaks, an intentional community of about 100 people. They did not have internet access in every building and you had to be at a land line phone location to use your cell phone. I asked about the restriction. They said that they didn’t want their everyday life to be interrupted by phones ringing everywhere and anywhere. It was a little frustrating and very refreshing.”

Julia says: “Every time I’m away from technology I feel my identity is fuller. Spending time with people, being outdoors, meditating, praying, or making something with my hands all give me so much more life than time on the computer can. My greatest moments of creativity, connection with others, and peace are away from the computer. Yet it is still hard to break away from at times. It can be an easy source of familiarity and comfort, especially in unfamiliar or uncomfortable moments.”

In trips to Costa Rica and Cuba, Julia and other travelers had their internet usage curtailed. “In that specific scenario I was at times uncomfortable, not having access to the familiarity of the computer which could easily connect me to my family and friends – but not having it was so very beneficial in the development of our immediate community. We had more conversations, shared more freely with each other, and relied on each other more for comfort and strength in difficult times.”

Faith was shocked by the discrepancy between her meeting Cubans face-to-face and a mainstream media-driven sense of reality. In her travels to Cuba, she found that her expectations of a poor uneducated populace were totally overturned when she had conversations with farmers and others whose literacy, sophistication, and openness made her realize: “They’re just like us.” Her admiration for what the Cubans endured after the fall of the Soviet Union and the United States embargo contrasted with the way Cuba was talked about by George Bush Jr. as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Faith says: “The reason I did The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil was because I thought that what Cubans faced and came through was very important for the world to know about.” The Power of Community has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people in film screenings across the planet and also on the web. Faith is currently working on a sequel about Cuba’s Energy Revolution, called Earth Island, Energy and Community.

Like our film work, our critiques about the futility of finding a techno-fix to solve the planet’s climate crisis also are posted on the internet. We are committed to contributing wherever we can to a holistic and fact-based view of the planet and the issues we face as a global people. Just like the alternate news sites that inform and sustain us, we feel it’s important to be part of a dialogue about the human future. Abandoning the web to corporate giants is like abandoning agriculture to GMOs.

At the same time, we continue to question the ubiquity of the web and whether its use by others for power and control outweigh its benefits. As our built infrastructure privileges the family car over walking or bicycling or taking trains, so the information superhighway can take us away from books and conversations and storytelling. We know we need to keep other kinds of conversations and communities and knowledgebases alive. We need to make sure we continue to tell stories of the way things are and the way things have been so that the only stories that are told are not through the corporate media’s eyes.