Dissent: What’s Wrong with ‘What’s Wrong with the Internet’

Perhaps I’m one of the lucky few, but I feel relatively immune from this corrosive disease of completionism: generally, I’ll give a YouTube clip about 10 seconds to capture my interest before moving on to the next thing. I’ll give a news article or blog post a paragraph — at most — to prove itself worthy of my readership. If someone sends me a link, I’m wary of investing even a single click without some foretaste of what lies beneath.

Yet like Mr. Goodwin, I’ve also stubbornly sat through movies that had proven themselves insufferable before the opening credits expired. The difference, it seems, is that by the time I lost my appetite for the films, I had already made a significant investment: going to the movie store, paying the rental fee, reserving a block of time in my day, and, indeed, sitting through the opening credits.  The compulsion to complete, then, is not itself inherent to human nature, but is rather a symptom of our instinctive response to sunk costs — sinking deeper. Once we’ve made an investment, of time or money, we’re inclined to stick it out even when it becomes clear that the fruits of that investment are barely edible.

Information consumption on the Internet, by contrast, requires virtually no investment at all: hence why I can guiltlessly shut off Dennis After the Dentist following the child’s first loony remark while feeling compelled to sit through Dennis the Menace to the last bitter temper tantrum. In this way, the Internet provides liberation from the tyranny of completionism: transaction costs vanish and we are free to live and consume in the present rather locking ourselves into whatever regretful choice we may have made at the movie store or newspaper stand.

Once it is understood that the Internet militates against the need to finish what we start, the “wrongs and wrongers” underlined by messieurs Goodwin and York have considerably less (if any) bite. Gluttony is far more likely when your mother insists you polish off your plate than when you’re free to stop eating once sated; similarly, we are at a greater risk of media overconsumption when prior investments weigh on our conscience than when everything presents itself on a no-strings-attached, take-it-or-leave-it basis. On some level, web browsing may indeed be about attaining knowledge for its own sake — hardly a cancerous disposition, if we think liberal arts education is at all worthwhile — but this is certainly preferable to consumption that we neither want nor need.

As to sloth, let’s not forget that while a newspaper is a one-way street, the Internet offers endless avenues of expression. From forwarding articles to making political contributions, the active doing of things becomes much easier online; and inertia, I would argue, is a far more serious impediment to meaningful action than any complacency that may result from the self-satisfaction of knowing.  For the same reason, I have little sympathy with Mr. York’s contention that the ability to personalize consumption — and the sense of empowerment that comes with it — is a lamentable departure from the world where a handful of media elites dictated the sounds and images entering our living rooms and shaping our society.


  • Felix York wrote:

    I reject your self-description. Four words: Big Momma’s House 2.

  • Garbanzo McArthur wrote:

    1. Big Momma’s House is three words. 2. How exactly does BMH cut against my self-description?

  • Felix York wrote:

    “2″ counts as a word, making it four.

  • I have nine points in response, which I’ll address as time permits.

    1. Completionism manifests itself in different forms. As noted in the original essay, it is not contingent upon completing a YouTube video or reading the entirety of the blog post.

    2. Expanding upon that, try using an RSS reader: you’ll quickly find that you don’t even need to finish a headline to get that kick as you reduce your unread articles count.

    3. Your point about sunk costs is a corollary to my point, not a refutation. Sunk costs feed completionism: finishing becomes substituted for an actual return on the investment (you may not have enjoyed the film, but at least you finished it; you may not have actually read any of the 100 new items in your RSS reader, but you did successfully scan them all, taking that 100 to 0). Further, the sunk cost phenomenon, by virtue of its universality, is a clearly a characteristic of human nature.

    4. Your point about the lack of investment on the internet is excellent, and points to a clear advantage of the medium (Tyler Cowen elaborates convincingly on this point in his most recent book). But two counterpoints or questions:
    4a. Does this just obscure the investment of time that occurs after the fact (anyone who has ever looked up from a mindless blog and gasped at the time can relate)?
    4b. This is absolutely liberating, and I will gladly concede this seen benefit. I just worry that this liberating sensation, which I relate to, conceals the lesser easily seen ills I note in my essay.

    5. Your argument that the internet “militates against” completionism only holds if we define it so narrowly: beginning and finishing a piece of media. Also:
    5a. Your maternal illustration is novel, but hardly credible: are we really to blame obesity on the tyranny of fat-force-feeding mothers?
    5b. The natural limits on the glutton (fullness of the stomach) do not exist with information consumption. Further, as a hopefully future Dissense contributor mentioned to me recently, consuming information on the internet creates it’s own “pseudo-need,” where you worry that you’ve missed something, that you need to hit refresh, that you have to check Drudge or HuffPo for the latest….well, the latest something. The “natural” limits on this gluttony are necessities: fatigue, hunger, need to excrete, and in the case of some South Koreans, apparently death.

    6. I would argue that a liberal arts education is precisely not knowledge for its own sake, and that your comment is precisely what’s wrong with what masquerades as the liberal arts at many colleges. The goal, in a line, is to be able to reason rightly (a claim fraught with very significant implications; note also that I did not say, the reasons ___ is right), not to enjoy the reading. Anyone who has endured the full force of a Great Books education could attest to the latter.

    7. I applaud yet another reason to hope that not all is lost with the internet: it does make the possibility of doing things much easier. The threshold is certainly lower for action. And far be it from me to denigrate the explosion of creative expression it has engendered (this site being a perfect example…er, hopefully).

    Nonetheless, inertia has always been a problem. We have not always had the ability to scratch the countervailing itch to act by reading about it or watching someone else do it. If America’s trend to obesity was being reversed or the number of hours we spend in front of screens reduced, I would be more sanguine about the “just do it” effect posited by McArthur.

    Finally, this line illustrates part of the problem: “from forwarding articles to making political contributions…” Those are technically doing things, but they are hardly where we want the doing to stop. Whereas in a non-digital age, you had to have a conversation to share the benefits of an article you read (which, as Sunstein has noted, has a much stronger effect on changing perceptions), now you simply forward a link. McArthur himself said he thinks twice before clicking on a link: this is the lowest form of doing. Not all doing is created equal, and if we’re concerned with people taking meaningful steps to “do,” then we should hardly be touting their ability to spam their friends with another triple fwdfwdfwd.

    8. I too share McArthur’s dissatisfaction with those who yearn for the past (as he notes in his final line). To quote Carl Sagan, a still more glorious dawn awaits. I look not to the past, but to the future for the solutions to the problems inherent in our information consumption. Innovation, not downgrading, will cure these ills. But we need to admit the disease before we can hope for a cure.

  • Okay, eight. The ninth escapes me.

  • It seems to me that it’s pretty clear what some of the possibilities for good and bad on the internet are. The access to a vast amount of different viewpoints can help a person see a lot of these and be exposed to a wide mix of these views, but someone can also use the wide range of material to find the other crazies out there. People could use the brevity of most things on the internet to quickly become informed but this can also lead to shallowness of understanding.

    The real question isn’t really about the possibilities though, but about how people actually use the internet. Without a lot of sociological studies, I don’t know how much we can figure out. I do appreciate that Bill brought in a study, but I have problems with it since I’m not sure what to conclude from it. I think it doesn’t really address the issue of how the habit of being virtuous and the way knowledge leads to virtue. It seems to be like it’s possible that some people will read about the ways things should be and what’s wrong and convince themselves that they are good and smart, but it also seems possible that people becoming more aware of politics and things going on will be more active in actually doing things. I don’t know which way of these two possibilities is more common, but my hunch would be that it more often leads to action than inaction. The Ron Paul and TEA party movements seem to me to be largely a result of the internet. Personally, I am very inactive in politics and perform few good actions of any kind, but the small amount of things that I do seems to be helped a lot of the time by information on the internet. Anyways, I think that Bill’s argument about pride leading to inaction is not convincing.

    The connection between inaction and the internet that I see is that people just get used to an easy way to waste time that can go on forever. The cycle of checking my email, checking my other email, checking facebook, checking the news, checking my email, checking my other email, etc. can go on forever and I can waste hours doing that when I should be doing work or doing some more valuable leisurely activity. I am not sure that even on this level the internet is worse than other forms of media. The amount of TV watched by the average American household is appalling. There are some good things to watch and some amount of just being entertained is not a problem, but over 5 hours a day for the average American cannot be justified as a good use of time.

    My apologies for the rambling nature of this comment.

  • Henry is right to point out actual usage matters. I referenced a number of interesting studies of the various phenomena discussed, but didn’t want to get too bogged down in numbers.

    However, even absent empirical confirmation of behavior, I don’t need to apologize much. After all, there is value in pointing out which parts of a sword are sharp, even before we know how many people are cutting themselves inadvertently. This is particularly true when it’s clear mistaken notions abound about which parts of the weapon are actually dangerous.

    Finally, while there are movements that are driven or facilitated by the Internet, I doubt very much that they were born out of the information consumed on the internet. The internet as a communication medium helps movements grow virally, but let’s not confuse that with influencing people through what they consume (and the attendant problems stemming from their patterns of consumption). As I stated in my second essay, it’s not what we read that has an effect, so much as what we say, and, in terms of political movements, what we do.

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