Late Gen X-ers and younger Baby Boomers—a sizable demographic among EDLM’s volunteer writers—have lived about half of their lives with the internet and half without it, having come to adulthood before online activity became a fact of everyday life. They remember the indispensability of land line phones. They remember the frustration of not remembering the name of a celebrity or a film, and having no immediate recourse to find it out. They remember a day when you were acquainted with people for years but had no idea what their political opinions were.
The internet is “the number one invention in my life and potentially the most destructive had it been here sooner,” writes one EDLM volunteer, Diarist C45, in response to our recent directive about online life. He expressed gratitude that there were no social media platforms in which his and his friends’ embarrassing exploits could be shared and preserved for posterity.
The internet is his main source of information, he writes, “despite having grown up with World Book, card catalogues, and the Dewey Decimal system.” He notes that some affordances of smart phones were the stuff of sci fi when he was young.
And, like others who have been part of this transformation, he has mixed feelings about it.
He has lost friends in political arguments on social media—an experience that caused him to make fewer “politically provocative” online comments in recent years. At the same time, he is grateful for the ease of staying in touch with friends and family that social media allows. Of his time spent online, he is generally positive, on balance. Being online “is as valuable as I want it to be…it’s important to my being and function, yet—hopefully—does not control me.”
The question of control—of the degree to which we are controlling our social media devices and engagements, or vice versa—is a powerful theme in the directives. So, more broadly, is the overall ambivalence embedded in the word “Hopefully.”
Every writer in this collection of directives uses the internet, social media, and online communication in multiple, diverging ways. Some play games online, others don’t; some have pulled back from social media in the recent years of political polarization, some have not; some get most, or almost all, of their entertainment online.
But no one among our responding writers offers a full-throated, unequivocal embrace of the changes wrought by the internet; and no one offers a complete denunciation of it. Ambivalent acceptance characterizes the responses overall, with different weight given to the benefits of social media, the evils attendant upon it, or the prices it exacts.
Writer A34, a skilled laborer who listens to podcasts while he works, perhaps best exemplifies this ambivalence. He listens to a wide variety of podcasts, including comedy, discussion of religious texts and themes, and political opinion. He is grateful for texting and instant-messaging on social media platforms. It’s meaningful to him when someone reaches out simply to touch base. He sees online connection as genuine, even as he recognizes the perils of the latest developments in the corporate, digital-tech world that have made it possible.
“I have met people over the last few decades that reach out to me or I to them every so often,” he writes. “It takes effort to not lose people from your life when you haven’t seen them at a job or outside of work in years. We all have our own lives and our own families, but for a person to reach out and ask how you are or vice versa is important to the emotional health of us all. I hope the next generation can realize that before the tech industry or AI seemingly will take over and evolve how humans interact going forward.”
This analysis from diarist A34 specifically points to a connection-building, pro-social element of contemporary online life that he hopes will survive the next round of digital innovations. Perhaps most striking is the writer’s anticipatory nostalgia—a hinted vision of a darker future when the positive ways we interact online now will be washed away by stronger and stronger algorithmic influence on human life.
This nuanced thought co-exists in A34 with a powerful worry about the amount of time he spends engaged with apps and platforms, his “addiction” to his phone, as he phrases it, echoing many writers in this collection.
This issue brings him to an elegiac conclusion in which he envisions the return of simpler, less distracted way of life without “tech.”
“I hope there is a better way to live in the future, but I believe it will have to be via giving up on the tech and going back to a more traditional lifestyle. Human interaction and alone time with your thoughts allows your brain to function as it was designed to do. We are all missing out on memory making activities with our families in order to binge watch a tv series, look at news that doesn’t affect our daily lives, or play a game that is a distraction from life itself. Go outside with your family and make a memory. Try to make some positive lasting ones because at some point that is all we will be…a memory.”
Diarist B35 worked through a similar, ambivalent stock-taking of tech influence to conclude on a more upbeat note. He also uses the language of addiction. And he expresses concern about the surveillance aspects of living online, noting that his streaming device “listens and watches us watch and listen, so it can play ads curated for our proclivities.”
But he feels alright about his own online practices, and the potential personal and social good of such access to knowledge causes him to look forward with hope. At the same time, he accords with A34 on the value of logging off.
“I think I manage my online presence with adequate restraint. my phone never strays too far from me but I do not HAVE to have it with me at all times and I walk away from it at need without regrets….having devices like this with vast amounts of knowledge at the tap of my fingers still fills me with hope, confidence, and satisfaction. even so, the pressure of this vast ocean of information can feel like work just hovering there in the cloud without actually doing any work to tap into it. however, I do have the skills I developed in my pre-mobile device youth to exist unfettered from this on occasion and find a lot of soul-feeding value in that.”
In this and other examples, this collection makes clear that the shift to living a substantial part of our lives online marks the most profound transformation in daily life for much of the EDLM demographic. These directives show that when we think about this change, we recognize its influence—now and in the future—on the deepest parts of ourselves, on our very humanity.
We invite you to read the rest of the directive responses here.