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By Joel Klebanoff

Internet Hours

I can't start my day without first reading The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper based in Toronto and satellite-printed across Canada. That's not a particularly relevant fact, but it's as good an opening sentence as any. On August 3, 2006, I was reading my paper as usual when I came across a story on page A3 that was so astonishing that I felt compelled to pass it along to you in case you missed it. Are you sitting down? If you're not, I suggest you do so now because this is going to bowl you over. It seems that people who spend a great deal of their personal time surfing the Internet do not spend as much time doing housework and socializing with family and friends as people who don't use the Internet at all.

Gee, what a surprise that is! Internet users have not yet found a way to increase the number of hours in the day. No, really?

Most people spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week at work. Some of that is lunch, coffee break, and water cooler time, but it's still not available to spend with your family or doing housework. That's probably a lowball estimate because, despite the fact that computers and automation were supposed to lessen our workload, many people are now working longer than they used to, putting in extra time for incredibly flimsy reasons, such as they don't want to lose their job to someone in a foreign country who is willing to do it for 90% less salary and little or no benefits. Some people also spend an hour or two, or sometimes even more, commuting every day. I can't vouch for that personally. Because I work out of my home, I only have to walk downstairs to get to my office. Nonetheless, I'm not the norm, as my readers, family, and dear friends will readily attest, but that's a completely different matter. The point is that on average people spend considerable time working and getting to and from work.

Add to that the seven or eight hours that most of us spend sleeping. Then there's the hour or so we spend worrying before falling asleep. OK, maybe that's just me, but even without the preliminary angst time, something that, for the life of me, I can't see how you can avoid, sleeping consumes a large portion of the day.

Most of us eat a couple of meals, breakfast and supper, at home. I don't include that time in my calculations because the point I'm trying to make here is that, even before the Internet, there wasn't a lot of housework and family time to start with. But dinner at home usually does count as family time because you often get a chance to have a conversation with your loved ones as you scarf down your McNuggets before jumping back onto your computer.

Given all of the time that we do spend sleeping or away from our families and homes, or sleeping away from our families and homes, call me apathetic if you must, but I can't get terribly excited over discovering that if you spend more than an hour a day of personal time on the Internet—the definition of a heavy user according to the article—that's coming from time that would have been spent on one or more other activities.

Again, I may be the exception to this rule. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, but it hasn't resulted in any decrease whatsoever in the time I spend either visiting with my family or doing household chores, but that's only because there never was much to give up. I've always been a single, reclusive guy whose idea of housecleaning is to, once every decade or so, rent heavy construction equipment and tunnel under the dust to create paths between the principal rooms in my condo. I know what you're going to say. You can't understand why a great catch like me is still single. Go figure.

The fascinating facts revealed in the article came from a report published by the Canadian government's statistical agency, Statistics Canada, which is affectionately known as StatsCan. Alright, StatsCan doesn't sound terribly affectionate, but it's a government agency. What were you expecting, passion?

This was such amazing news that I had to go to the source. I found a summary of the study on StatsCan's Web site. What I was really hoping to learn was whether the study investigated cause and effect. I didn't see any suggestion that it did. The unsupported implication seems to be that people were spending less time enjoying family and friends and tidying up because they are spending more time on the Internet, but how do the researchers know that this is the case? Maybe the causal relationship is in the other direction. Maybe people are spending more time on the Internet as an excuse to avoid doing those other things.

"Oh, kids, you know I'd be absolutely thrilled to go out and play ring around the rosy with you, but I've just found the most interesting Web site. It seems there's a fortune to be made out of harvesting ant dung. I need to spend a few more hours reading the material on the site to find out how I can get in on the ground floor of this fantastic opportunity. Then I've got to get my wallet. I need my credit card because the special magnifying glass and tweezers start-up kit is just $129.99. By the time I finish all of that, it'll be too dark to play, but, think of it, kids, by spending this time on the Web, I'm going to make us rich. I'll finally be able to buy you all of those idiotic toys that you've spent all of your waking hours continually conniving, yelling, screaming, nagging, whining, agitating, and pleading for over the past eight years. But, otherwise, I'd love to go out and play. Really."

Of course, you'd also absolutely love to do some laundering, vacuuming, scrubbing, scouring, dusting, and other cleaning just as soon as you finish your marathon session in your favorite chat room, the one for people with a fear of the Times New Roman typeface.

It's not surprising that people who spend a lot of time on the Internet spend less time with their families. Due to the size of most computer screens, the interactive nature of the Internet, and the extreme narrowcasting found on most of the sites, Web surfing usually isn't much of a group activity.

It's not like the old days, when the primary form of entertainment in the home was television. Back then, televisions were relatively expensive, so there typically was only one, or at most two, in a household. Consequently, families gathered together in front of the set for the evening's viewing. During the commercial breaks, the program content often triggered inspiring, deep philosophical discussions about whether Gilligan would recover from the concussion that he sustained when the coconut fell on his head. Or, when the womenfolk left the room, the men would have rousing conversations about Ginger and Mary Ann. You just don't get that sort of family-enhancing experience through the Internet.

According to the survey, while it's true that heavy Internet users spend less time in face-to-face interactions, they do relate to people in other ways through the Internet. That may be so, but it's rather difficult to determine whether those relationships are honest ones. Your perfect mate (that fabulously gorgeous, mature member of the opposite sex—or not, depending on your orientation) who you met on the Internet may turn out to be a pimply-faced, 13-year-old nerd who's pretending to be someone whom he or she is definitely not. And, as the news media tell us, the deception in chat rooms intended for teenagers might be considerably more sinister.

Here's another surprising fact uncovered by the study. Heavy Internet users are less likely to feel stressed out or be workaholics than non-users. Let's see, here are people who have built little electronic cocoons around themselves, often shutting out the real world and all of its global and personal problems and foibles. And now StatsCan feels the need to inform me that these people have less stress and don't work excessively. Who would have guessed that? Then again, despite all of the troubles of the real world, there is some joy to be had in seeing something other than what's on your computer screen once in a while. As far as I remember, a sunset walk on a beach isn't a particularly stressful experience.

Now that I've said all that, I should admit that I'm a bit skeptical about the findings of the StatsCan survey for a couple of reasons. First, the survey was voluntary. I suspect that if it was mandatory, with legal penalties for failing to respond, say as part of the census that StatsCan administers every five years, they'd find that the activity that people are most likely to cut out when they devote more time to the Internet is answering surveys. Who's got time for that when you're busy blogging? Thus, given its voluntary nature, heavy Internet users are probably underrepresented in the study. The second thing that made me skeptical about the completeness of the results was that there was no mention of the effect that heavy Internet use had on Canadians' three most popular and time-intensive activities: drinking beer, watching hockey, and making fun of foreigner's misconceptions about Canada and Canadians. Intuitively, I doubt that the time spent on any of those activities has declined, but intuition is often wrong. Enquiring minds want to know.



This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.



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