Rhodri Marsden: Why the internet's critics are wrong

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

When someone asks, "How are you?" I have a bad habit of giving an honest (but mercifully brief) analysis of my state of mind, incorporating self-esteem, health and anxiety issues, when I should really just say, "I'm fine, thanks, how are you?" I'm not miserable, honest, but does technology have any bearing on my mood? If you took away my laptop, smartphone and router, would I feel any better? Would I experience a butterfly-like transformation from my supposedly introspective, computer-dominated existence?

Not according to BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, which has released a report this week that identifies a direct correlation between happiness and digital connectivity. Now, for a few minutes this morning, I derived enormous amusement from an online exchange with a friend that explored exotic spellings of areas of East London (Stepné, Ba-Qing, Beaux), but this report addresses longer-term life satisfaction. After analysing data from the World Values Survey (from 39 countries) and the British Household Panel Survey done by the University of Essex, BCS found a direct positive impact of IT on our well-being. Now, you might expect an organisation dedicated to promoting IT triumphantly to announce such a finding, but if the report is an accurate reflection of 21st-century life, it has implications for social issues such as the digital divide, delivery of internet access by national governments, and the concept of broadband as a human right.

BCS found that IT gives a particular hike in well-being for lower-income groups and women. Particularly so in developing nations, but the stats hold true in the West, too. And one of the most surprising findings is the happiness boost attributed to social networking, something that's so often derided for diluting and trivialising the notion of friendship. Blogger Miranda Ward (aliteralgirl.com) posted an excellent piece at the weekend that hit back at a number of cultural commentators who have recently attacked the impact of the internet on society, including Camille Paglia's airy dismissal of Lady Gaga fans as being "marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty", and a piece on mcsweeneys.net that bemoans how minds are "destroyed by over-connectedness, starving for attention".

Like Ward, I'm suspicious of sweeping statements that seem to be predicated on little more than a new awareness of the way a generation is interacting because it's suddenly all up there online for the world to see. They ignore the innumerable ways that the internet helps to connect people in real life as a direct result of connecting them via a keyboard and a monitor. Social interaction of any kind, of course, is never guaranteed to make us happy, short term. But while I may not be sitting here with a smile on my face right now, that's about my own personal neuroses, not the time I spend online. The internet certainly hasn't stopped us feeling, as Ward puts it, "emotionally charged and ridiculously alive". And if you believe BCS's findings, it's done quite the opposite.



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The most moving blog entry I read this week was actually posted three months ago by a blind man, Austin Seraphin (you can read it at bit.ly/blind-phone), recounting his experience of using an iPhone for the first time. As the gadget's appeal has so much to do with its sleek stylings and smooth, touchscreen surface, it was beyond surprising to read Seraphin saying: "I can safely say that the iPhone represents the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for at least ten years." But he's blind, and I'm not, so I'm taking his word for it.

By using VoiceOver – the screen-reading software that comes with Macs and works with the iPhone, too – Seraphin explains how he can read text messages, weather reports, stock prices and more. More astonishingly, by using an app called Color ID, which announces the names of colours, Seraphin was able to use the camera to sense shades, and "watch the sun set, listening to the colours change as the sky darkened". As he says in the first sentence: "My life changed forever." Not a bad advert for Apple – but also a wonderful indication of how any smartphone platform can be effectively harnessed to help the visually impaired.

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