When historians look back at the beginning of the Internet Age, June of 1999 will surely have its own earmark. This was the launch of Napster, that short-lived file-sharing service that, in less than a year, fundamentally changed not only the music business, but our expectations for the consumption of media in general. Since that time, BitTorrent has, to a lesser degree, similarly degraded the market value of movies we watch at home. And blogs and the Web overall have created an environment in which news, photos, and video are nothing if they are not free.
Some — myself included — have argued that this is simply a period of transition, when the art, entertainment, ideas, and other information we consume have fallen into an arena with few rules. Meanwhile, the powers that be are scrambling to rework business models to make up for the new expectations of customers: We want it now,and we want it cheap. But free is better.
Services like Netflix, iTunes, Spotify, and the entire ad-supported Web have helped to hold the heads of the media and entertainment industries just above drowning level. Not that these industries are poor, or necessarily failing — but the products they offer are now worth less simply because many of us now know what it’s like to get something for nothing.
But the effects of the “free and open” Internet extend far beyond the reaches of Hollywood or Wall Street. They reach deep into the lives of anyone who spends much of their day online.
If “value” is what we are willing to give up in order to get something in return, then almost everything the Web touches turns worthless — it’s not just music and news. Because of the instant, constant, addictive qualities of the Web, we have collectively decided that nothing but the Web itself has long-lasting value.
Part of the reason for this is the democratic nature of the Web. When everything is a click away, everything appears to have the same value. A meditation on the nature of truth competes with a video of seagulls with diarrhea. The opinions of an uneducated blogger (ahem) go head-on with those of life-long scholars. Items of high intrinsic worth, and low intrinsic worth are presented as equals on the Web. The low-value ideas, art, or journalism will fall faster than those with more substance, quality, or intrigue. But give it time — the high-quality things will fall as well.
The battle between “vegetable” information and “candy” information has likely always existed, of course, but never before have the two sides become so mixed and the edges of each so blurred. Granted, this casserole of life is one of the things that makes the Web great. Social media like Twitter and content aggregation sites like Reddit offer an endless buffet of brain food — a little steak here, a little broccoli there, 16 pieces of chocolate cake piled on top of everything. It’s delicious! And, if you’re like me, you can’t stop gorging yourself, day in and day out.
The problem with this all-you-can eat info feast is that you must develop a superhuman discipline in order to truly savor any idea long enough for its nutrients to absorb into your life. Even if you stumble across the most mind-blowing, amazing, ridiculous piece of art, or music, or theory, any value it may have is lost if you don’t take the time to live with it, explore its caves and hilltops, and learn to love and hate each bit appropriately. In this way the ever-present speed and urgency of the Web saps the quality out of anything that, in a less-connected era, would have rippled through humanity in a slower, more meaningful way.
The worth-sucking nature of the Web does not stop there, unfortunately. Because of our expectation that everything online should, in one way or another, be free, we devalue parts of ourselves as payment. Take personal privacy, for example. Privacy is dead — gone. You can just forget about it. Companies like Facebook and Google likely know more about you than you know about yourself. The reason for this is that we demand that they offer their services for nothing. We have become their product, as they say, profiles sold to advertisers as proof that we’ll buy their particular brand of thing. Were we willing to pay to search, or to connect with our old high-school buddies, then we would have far more power to demand that the personal information we divulge is kept tightly and secure, not sold to the highest bidder. Our very existence as real-life individuals has become a commodity — that is the power of the Web.
Of course, all of this is hyperbolic, to a certain extent. We all still have ideas, movies, music, art, friends, love — things that truly matter, that have value. But these things do not have value because they exist on the Web, but in spite of it. The Internet itself has value — it connects friends, and empowers nations. It binds humanity together as one in a way never before realized. It makes many things possible that would not be without the Web. But it is because of these awesome powers that we are willing to give up so much else.
In the end, good music, movies, journalism, and ideas will spread and survive, and part of this will surely be helped along because of the abilities to share and connect that the Internet allows. The challenge is not to disconnect more often, but to know when to pull these valuable bits of life offline, to savor and enjoy (or hate) them slowly so that all they have to offer can soak into your being, and become part of who you are.
Image via Mehmet Dilsiz/Shutterstock