|David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.|
The Internet has impacted every aspect of our lives during the past 20 years, from grocery shopping to Google and from Facebook to data collection. But for all of its impact, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the various positive or negative sides to the changes.
The positives I think are more obvious. We have access to more information in fifteen seconds than was available to previous generations in a week of library visits. We can locate weather forecasts, stock prices, the name of the guitarist on “Station to Station” or the team sheet for HJK’s latest debacle in the Champions League.
Along with that access comes the speed of response. We can contact companies and hotels and organisations anywhere in the world at almost any hour of any day. As consumers, we expect answers within a day, and usually get them. Remember when a simple letter took a week to reach the US?
There is also the aspect of competition. The sunglasses you lust after are probably available online from a dozen different outlets. You can compare prices, delivery costs and the company’s reputation before making a decision, a far cry from the days when retailers could offer a “take it or leave it” approach to customers.
But the negative impacts of the Internet have unfortunately been as great, starting with jobs. When a bank in Finland can lay off 500 people in a profitable year, you can bet that most of those redundancies are linked to technology. Companies just don’t need people to answer phones, deliver mail, type or take notes like they used to. The flow of information is increasingly automated and anonymous.
Secondly, the availability of products on the Internet has lead to a kind of fascism-by-technology. As much as clicking on the “flight information” tab on a travel website can cause the price to jump. Your IP address is recorded, and next time you return to that site, the prices will be higher. It used to be that regular customers received better service – now we get worse.
I also think the general standard of service and services available has declined. There are no music stores anymore, and bookstores will be next. As publishers produce less and less books and magazines, so self-published books and blogs moves to replace them – 99 per cent of which are dire. The media of the current generation is a media without standards, ethics or quality control.
It is entirely likely that five years from now, our shopping centres will be empty shells. Bars and restaurants may survive, but will appliance or fashion stores? What will replace the empty shells in our inner cities?
It has never been as easy for a person to live their entire life in their bedroom – but with very little discussion as to whether or not that is a good thing. I don’t think it is. We are social creatures. We do our best work, think our best thoughts and are happiest when we interact face-to-face.
As more of us work from home, I fear many companies forget the value of putting people together. Sure, people working at home probably work longer hours. But are they as productive, as dynamic, as dedicated as when they work in a close-knit team? I think we know that they are not.
Increasingly, the fact that we choose to shop or work or communicate at all in a face-to-face method is unusual. But for all of the immense benefits brought to use by the Internet, we must ensure that the virtual world never entirely replaces the real one.