Doodle: Our Digital Age Isn't the Golden Age
Midway through 2005 I dropped out of university—and not for the first time. I can clearly remember talking to my understandably worried parents before officially deregistering. Attempting to stave off their consternation, I reassured them that I would use the next six months to learn. You see, the early 2000s was an exciting moment in recent history. The internet was expanding rapidly, boasting an already vast sea of content. Thus, dropping out of university was actually an opportunity to develop new skills and broaden my learning. So I claimed. But my parents’ concerns were well justified and later vindicated.
Almost two decades later I won’t even venture an estimate concerning the exponential growth of information now available online. We don’t only have access to more learning than any previous generation, we have a practically universal digital database of information. Though the reliability of much of this information is dubious, the internet is able to answer essentially every question you throw at it—just ask Google, or ChatGPT. It’s all—well, mostly—there. Almost anything. Everything. Speaking as the internet in his recent comedy special Inside, Bo Burnham asks: “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?”
But let’s face facts. For all the podcasts, forums, blogs, networks, and platforms extant online, most of us use our incessant connectivity to access—well—nothing. Nothing substantial, at least. Hands glued to our phones and eyes married to those screens, the majority of our scrolling is mindless, passive, and shallow. To adapt one of my favourite quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche: online we’re subject to torrents of information about men and women, but hear little meaningful talk about man. It’s all the more remarkable that he said that in the late 1800s, long before we stumbled into this post-apocalyptic digital world of celebrity and influencer culture.
The architects of the internet—and possibly also the minds behind earlier social media platforms—dreamed of a golden internet age. It was meant to be an age of knowledge, learning, and study. In that age communities would gather online to engage thoughtfully, sharing their well reasoned opinions. It’s true. Such spaces exist. But they’re a troublingly small percentage of what goes on online. And if we’re honest, they’re not why we’re inseparable from our phones and screens. Whatever was envisioned in those early, headily optimistic days of the internet hasn’t materialised. Our age is dystopian, more like an episode of Black Mirror or a chapter from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Whatever it is, our digital age is far from a golden one.
Call me what want: pontificating Luddite or cultural cynic. In the words of Boromir, ‘I care not.’ Plus, I’ve heard worse. Furthermore, at the end of the day, it’s not up to me to decide on the appropriate use for these incredible tools. It’s up to you. By the devices nestled in the palms of our hands, we possess remarkable potential. This is potential for knowledge and depth. And I’d hastily add that this is what we were made for; not vane naval gazing and the endless consumption of vapid content. We’re made for so much more. The digital age is not the prophesied golden age of the early 2000s. But in many ways that’s up to us.