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Technology

The Web Takes Over

By David H FreedmanSeptember 23, 2010 5:00 AM

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Just think of all the ways the world wide web has improved our lives since its invention in 1989.

It is making us healthier: In 2007, some 160 million Americans looked for medical information online, according to a Harris Interactive poll. We can get advice directly from the Mayo Clinic’s Web site or ask a forum and tap the wisdom of the crowd.

It facilitates news gathering: When Iran cracked down on protesters last year, startling videos of the chaos were careening around the world’s computers and cell phones within minutes. We have access to a billion frontline reporters 24 hours a day.

It is an economic turbocharger: Today anyone can start a global business for almost nothing while sitting in his or her living room. Engineers, executives, salespeople, and creative teams can collaborate with each other and with customers and suppliers virtually around the world. Online retail sales are approaching $150 billion a year in the United States alone.

It is revitalizing politics: Barack Obama’s presidential campaign raised half a billion dollars—the bulk of the total money it raised—from more than 3 million people via the Web. Today, regular White House video postings have pundits dubbing this the “YouTube presidency.”

It is connecting us: We are in closer touch with more people for longer periods of time. Facebook has 500 million active users spending more than 700 billion minutes per month on the site.

Then again, the Web is also making us sicker, or at least making us feel that way: A 2008 study by Microsoft Research showed that Internet searchers tend to focus on only the top few results, typically highlighting rarer, more serious diagnoses of common ailments such as headache (brain tumor!) and chest discomfort (heart attack!).

It impairs news gathering: Some 30 daily newspapers have been shuttered in the past three years, and virtually all the rest have been rocked by layoffs, as advertisers and readers flee to blogs and other free, Web-based news sources where the reporting is often slapdash or recycled.

It is an economic saboteur: Large segments of the publishing and entertainment industries have been devastated by the cornucopia of free (often pirated) online publications, music, and video.

It is poisoning politics: Studies show that people tend to read Web sites that reinforce their biases and beliefs. Among the biggest winners politically on the Web have been hate and terrorist groups, many of which have mastered online fund-raising and recruiting.

It is alienating us: Social scientists caution that Facebook and other online playgrounds are keeping children from getting out and getting together, limiting their social skills and encouraging obesity.

What’s indisputable is that the Web is changing our behavior.

It may be changing the way our brains are wired, too. But by the time we figure out what these changes are, it won’t matter, because everyone will have grown up in a world where the Web is inseparable from everything we do. Celebrate the change or not. It isn’t waiting for your approval.

David H Freedman is a frequent contributor to DISCOVER and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

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