Interweb Braindump

It’s been 17 days since I got the internet in my apartment.

Less than 2 weeks after the new JICA volunteer Fukimi told me that she had wireless in her apartment, Voila, I’m connected once again to the world. Specifically, now I’m able to do things like video-chat with my favorite people at a mutually convenient hour — something that was difficult to do previously since most of my friends & family are 14 hours away, and though local internet cafe advertises 7am to 9pm, the reality’s a bit more limited.

I went to visit Kizuna Internet, the local Online reseller, where the sweet young guy walked me through all the details in Khmer-nglish while his mother and sister undertook a friendly interrogation about the purpose and the probable duration of my sojourn here in Kampong Cham. A week later, I was back in the office handing over a couple of crisp Jeffersons (in exchange for a receipt and a bag of those good-quality rambutans). Two days after that, Kizuna boy and his moto trailed me and my bicycle back up to the apartment where he efficiently clipped the telephone wire to attach the DSL line and configured my modem all within the lunch hour.

My Family DSL package, compliments of the Online company entitles me to unlimited hi-speed access from 7pm to 7am on weekdays and all weekend. Surprise surprise, I’ve noticed myself slowly start to mold my schedule around the new presence in my life. Each night around 7, I plug in my router, and first start up the iTunes downloads for the night — an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (don’t judge), 3 new Ted Talks, NPR’s Most Emailed Stories, and some foodie podcasts. Then it’s straight to Gmail, then to Blogger, then on to the tasklist I’ve compiled for the evening, which looks something like this:

– respond to all emails
– post new blog post + pix
– upload new fbook pix
– get picture of urban cambodian school, CD-rom, and “rural Cambodia” (creative commons)
– research green school architecture
– look into Global Giving commission for KAPE
– d/l examples of good local NGO websites for Channa
– add new reviews to goodreads

My internet tasklist is a new invention of mine that came of having to ration my online time when hitting up the local internet shop in the old pre-DSL-at-home days. And as much as I love the new flexibility of having internet in my house, I’m happy I spent those first 5 months without because it helped me to internalize some things that I only halfway intuited before:

1) The internet’s a tool — amazing for some tasks, of negative value for others. (Think: distraction, distorted perception of the world)
2) Internet use, like a lot of things, is subject to diminishing rate of return.
3) Growing up with the internet really has changed the way I think and work, in many very good ways and in some that seem not so good.

The first two ideas are pretty straightforward and not so controversial (unless of course you find yourself in a certain cult of tech-worshippers). The last also seems obvious at face-value, but it was the most surprising for me when I actually started considering just how much information access affects the way I personally think and work. For example…

3a) Easy access to data all-the-time, any-time means that I tend to undervalue the importance of actually filing facts away in my mind. This includes both personal facts — what day is my best friend’s birthday? check Facebook! — and general trivia. This second lacuna is constantly brought to my attention here in Cambodia; for example, when a group of high school students asked me questions like — How deep is the Grand Canyon? What year was the Statue of Liberty built? What percentage of people in your country live in urban areas? I find my fingers itching to reach out to a keyboard and perform a simple search. And it simply baffles them when I shrug helplessly and more than a little ashamedly and admit that I just don’t know.

I think this is the same condition that makes it so rare for any of us these days to memorize or recite poetry, or to remember famous quotes. Why remember when Google can remember for you? When the internet is for all intents and purposes, a repository of facts that plugs in to your brain, your brain itself can dedicate itself to being something less like an encyclopedia and more like a supremely complex computer that takes random facts and (in the best cases) fits them together into something new.

What (if anything) do we lose in this relationship, though? There seems to be something hollow about this kind of mind — one’s put in mind of these competing images: a giant pulsing cerebrum hooked up to an IV drip of information versus a glowing green brain sprouting from the ground, an organic product nurtured by sun and soil and all that other nice stuff.

3b) An obsession with what’s been done means learning from what’s coming before, but also possibly relying too much on past models and dampening innovation. With every new idea I have — a business idea, an opinion of a book, a philosophy — I find myself compelled to find out what other people have done and what other people think. This has a couple of effects. First it reduces the number of times I have to “reinvent the wheel,” which seems more efficient (e.g. finding a checklist on how to perform an energy audit to “green a school” means that I don’t have to make one myself). But it also happens to reduce the number of times I have to “reinvent the wheel,” which often makes for a superficial understanding of the wheel in question (e.g. energy use at schools) and also might make me lazy and likely to settle for what’s out there rather than innovate.

3c) Related to 3b, a depressing (and I believe, incorrect) feeling that everything worthwhile in the world has been done already and it’s a lost cause trying to have a new idea AND the conflicting feeling that the world is full of so many opportunities that it is impossible to choose which one to pursue (check out Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice, or the recent NY Times article “The Benefits of Closing a Few Doors”)


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