I’m not sure what criteria are met when something is listed as one of the wonders of the world, but in my view, the Internet should be on the list. It has changed the world so much in such a short time. But change, as it has always been, is a double-edged sword. Every day I find myself feeling grateful for the good the Internet does in my life. I communicate through it, I find answers to difficult questions through it, I discover beautiful things I never knew existed through it, I am educated through it, and I buy things through it. But even as I list these things related to the Internet that thrill me I am a little frightened by the power the Internet has to replace my physical, tactile world with an ephemeral, virtual world.
The tactile world is a very powerful thing. It is the thing that makes us afraid to die. Even with all its troubles and pain we don’t want to leave the world of sight, touch, sound, and smell. And yet the Internet, something that I love very much, has the potential to do just that. When I was a young man I experienced receiving perfumed letters from young women. What a delightful experience. I would hold the envelope in my hands and inhale. I would check to see if the stamp was upside-down (sign of affection), then I would open the envelope and pull out the letter. The letter would be on stationary paper with a color and design (maybe daisies, maybe bumble bees) that communicated the personality of the young woman who chose it. Then, I would unfold the paper and before me would be the handwriting in loops and curls, or slanted and regular, or something else that was a physical manifestation of the young woman’s personality. My children today have no idea what a physical delight it could be to get a letter. Today a letter is an email. Email cannot be touched or smelled and there is no handwriting. (Is handwriting still taught in school?) Email has the personality of a breakfast of egg whites. The Internet has rendered obsolete an entire physical experience. This disturbs me.
Other physical experiences that are in danger are hearing the voices of loved ones. I hear complaints of parents everywhere that they cannot get a child to answer their mobile phone. If they want to get a response they have to text them instead. Texting is certainly convenient. I can send my daughter a text when she is in school knowing that if she is in class where she is not allowed to read it or respond she will do so as soon as she is able. I like that. But what I like even more is answering my phone and hearing the voice that is uniquely hers say, “Hello, Daddy.” Texts all sound alike. If someone took the texts from my children and removed the “sent from “ names I could not tell which child sent which text except perhaps by context. Luckily, at least for now, my children will still call me or answer their phones when I call them. I love the sound of each of their voices.
There are still plenty of books being printed in physical form, but I think they are trending toward the endangered species list. I suffer from a dual personality on this subject. The progressive me absolutely loves reading digital books on my tablet. I just finished a book and tonight I will select another. To do this I will press an icon on my tablet, scroll through a list of books, press another icon to purchase the book, and within seconds will be reading that book on the tablet. I will do all this while lying in bed. How great is that! Having such easy access to books makes me want to stand up and do a jig. And then reading the book is so easy. My thumb doesn’t get tired holding the book open. One side of the book doesn’t cast a shadow on the other side of the book. A breeze doesn’t keep trying to change the page on me. But wait a minute. The very things I love about e-books renders obsolete so many other things I love about books. I miss the smell of the bookstore. I miss the sight of bound books in all colors and sizes. I miss the feel of running my finger along a shelf full of books as I walk by. I miss flipping through the pages until I reach a page with a picture on it. We have shelves of books at home. Some of my books are leather bound, edged with gold leave, satin interior, the typeface a carefully picked font—works of art! I don’t want these to become obsolete and yet I complain when I can’t get a book in electronic format. I know in the end the electronic books are going to win and the tactile book reading experience will become obsolete.
The Internet is changing the world and changing how we interact with the world. While I am in love with the Internet and how it brings the world to me I am going to take closer notice of all the sensory aspects in my day. When I am at a physical store and take change from a cashier and our hands momentarily touch I will take note of the feel. When I walk up the wood aisle of a hardware store I will appreciate more the smell of pine and cedar. When I walk through a used bookstore (how long has it been since you’ve been in one?) I am going to savor the smell of musty paper. When my phone rings and I hear my seven-year-old’s voice I am going to smile. I will do all this because who knows what sensations will become obsolete next?