One of my favorite movies is Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). It’s the story of how Edward R. Murrow, a famous CBS reporter, took on rabidly anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and ultimately facilitated McCarthy’s downfall.
I was particularly struck by the way the filmmakers used one of Murrow’s speeches. They open with the first part of Murrow’s 1958 speech, cut to the body of the movie, and close with the rest of the speech. In that speech, Murrow outlines the fall of television networks due in part to greed, corruption and a quest for ratings: “And if there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”
He bemoaned the abuse of television in 1958! I can only imagine how much rolling he’s done in his grave.
Murrow knew that the television was an important invention, and could be used to inspire and illuminate, instead of indulge and insulate. We know today that the power of television pales in comparison to the Internet, perhaps humanity’s greatest invention thus far. But one essential question remains the same: Do you use the Internet to inspire and illuminate, or indulge and insulate?
I imagine we use the Internet, like we use many things, for both good and bad purposes. Next to the latest picture of a cat on a keyboard, you may have a news article open. Or maybe the tab over from a YouTube video is Stanford’s library catalog, ready to assist you in your next paper. Maybe you use Facebook to both monitor the activities of acquaintances and as a facilitator for events and hangouts with the important people in your life.
There are those who occupy the extreme ends of Internet usage. Some commit absurd amounts of time to memes, blogs or forums that at their best facilitate idleness and at their worst perpetuate moral decay and indecency (I’m looking at you, denizens of /b/).
Others occupy the opposing end of that spectrum. I’m as prone to folly as anyone, but I try, generally, to use my time on the Internet as productively as possible. My Twitter feed follows my favorite magazines and educational journals. That way, all my news accrues in one place so I can log on and start reading various sources and perspectives. I’ll use my Facebook account to post articles and link up with friends and acquaintances. iTunes has allowed me to subscribe to interesting podcasts about the world.
When I meet a new person, I use Google to learn more about their interests. For example, I don’t know anything about ballet, but when I met a dancer I went home and did a little more research so I could better understand her life.
Unfortunately, I feel most people don’t try to use the Internet in this way. Many, rather than using the Internet to expand their horizons, use it to insulate themselves from the world. They only occupy those corners of the web that bring comfort or entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. We all want to be entertained. But we should all think critically about what entertains us. When you’re bored, that’s the time to be learning a new skill or perfecting old ones. That’s when you should learn chess or pick up a guitar. Free time is when you should go for a walk, contemplate life, drink with friends or hit the gym. Our time on Earth is admittedly limited. We should spend that time making the world a better place, not gawking at the latest nut-shot YouTube video.
Murrow concluded his speech by saying, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.” A tool is only as good as its craftsmen, and the Internet is just that: a tool.
How are you using it?
Feel free to use the Internet for one more thing: contacting Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.