The online life

The chaff is no less accessible than the wheat, and a lot more interesting and fun to read and watch.

computer 88 (photo credit: )
computer 88
(photo credit: )
Only two people in this entire world have the right to question how I spend my time: my wife and the guy who signs my paycheck. And I can honestly say that I've never given either any reason to suspect that I've been intentionally wasteful - neither in the office nor at home - with the relatively scarce number of hours that we all have to get things done. Which is why I hope that neither becomes aware of Time magazine's selection for its 2006 Person of the Year. For only the second time since 1927, technology has been directly or indirectly credited by Time with having an overwhelming impact on the world and society. In 1982 The Computer was given that honor; this year, the textual and video content that is constantly being uploaded onto the Web and made readily available to anyone with Internet connectivity has been cited. And those who generate this content - identified by Time as You - and participated in "bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter" are seen as nothing less than revolutionaries. WELL, YOU can add to the list of accomplishments the reason why goods have become more expensive, services are being more slowly provided, and workers are spending more hours on the job. Internet has become the water cooler of the 21st century, the place at which anywhere between 1.5 and two hours of a typical workday are wasted away. Oh, to be sure, the World Wide Web has become all but indispensable in virtually all areas of industry and commerce. A limitless reservoir of online and downloadable tools complement a numbing number of Web sites that have enabled people to become more efficient at accomplishing multiple tasks in a shorter amount of time. Not a day goes by, for example, that I don't check out something in one of the many online dictionaries that are no more than a click or two away, or peruse the free-for-the-taking clip art for something that might enhance or liven up a presentation that will be given to a potential customer. The chaff, though, is no less accessible than the wheat, and, as Time suggests, a lot more interesting and fun to read and watch. How, it's fair to ask, will my life change by being able to view the last "out" recorded by the Boston Red Sox in the curse-breaking 2004 World Series? And is watching Fred and Ginger elegantly gliding along the dance floor to the music of Berlin's "Cheek-to-Cheek" worth missing a deadline for? WHAT WE'RE witnessing is the migration of Internet into a powerful medium, with the promise of replacing television as a "vast wasteland." Time, in fact, hinted of this: "You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos - those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms - than you could from 1,000 hours of network television." Maybe, but television never crossed the threshold of the workplace. It wouldn't be so bad if all that we had to click on are videos of bubbe's 90th birthday party, blogs on the characteristics and complexity of single malt whisky, and exchanges on whether or not Hillary should run in 2008. No less available, though, are real-time pornography, surreptitious chat rooms, and cleverly designed messaging on the virtues of racism. It's only a matter of time before governments will be forced to confront what's going on. The United States, in fact, already has by recently legislating against online gambling emanating on American territory. But siphoning the evil from the positive - or even from the mundane - is both costly and time consuming, particularly when the nerve centers of such information lie in ordinary living rooms, and enjoy the protection of freedom of speech advocates. NOT THAT everyone feels that way. Some, in fact, argue that the time consumed surfing should be seen as "creative waste" and suggest that the nuggets of information that come out of site-hopping can have a positive impact on a company's work environment and business results. But while I've seen a number of studies on the adverse impact that idle Internet use has on workplace productivity and efficiency, I've yet to see anything other than conjecture regarding the opposite. A similar debate went on some years ago when a US congressman, on the basis of a Congressional Budget Office report, pointed daggers at the fledgling monopolist Microsoft. The company, he charged, included in its Windows package a group of games - solitaire, hearts, battleship - which federal workers were finding quite impossible to resist and were spending an inordinate amount of time "futzing" around with them. The debate, though, went nowhere, and nothing was done to keep the taxpayer-supported clerks and bureaucrats from sneaking in a quick game or two of what the game menu provided. The cost to block the recreational applications was thought to be greater than the benefits that would have been derived from removing them. Similarly, hackles will sooner or later rise over the Internet "futz factor" that You have caused. At the very least, expensive network surveillance and monitoring systems will have to be installed to keep the workforce honest, and a set of standards as to what is acceptable surfing will need to be defined. Because, you see, Time was quite right when it dared its readers to deny that they're "not just a little bit curious" about who's out there looking back at them through their computer screens. And unfortunately, the only way to get us away from the water cooler may be to shut the damn thing off altogether. The writer is a technical communicator.