Your grandparents embrace the digital age. Sort of.
According to a Pew poll conducted earlier this year, 15 percent of Americans over the age of 18 don't use the Internet or email, and most of them have no desire to change that fact. More surprisingly, 92 percent of those without Internet said they were not interested in getting it.
This disinterest can be explained in part by generational divide, as close to half of those disinterested were over 65. A number of aging curmudgeons have recently written distant and derisive stories about the Internet's many different roles in our lives, provoking a chorus of reciprocal derision from people who have no interest in old and Internet-less brains.
In a much criticized essay for The Guardian, award-winning author Jonathan Franzen wondered if "people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got of cigarettes," and then admitted Twitter's monetization plan seems "like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part panoptical surveillance." In an essay calling for a generational repeat of Led Zeppelin II, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote, "A lot of people believe they are doing things when they are interacting online. They believe they have friends on Facebook and Twitter. They believe they are communicating by text and email. And of course they sort of are. But that is not life—it is virtual life."
People who think of the Internet as isolating and diluting are not wrong. Younger and more Internet-enthused people may not have reached the stage in life when social isolation becomes weighty, driven by momentum that's increasingly hard to push back against.
It is a writerly trick to ascribe one's problems to hypothetical others, and both Franzen and Wurtzel seem to be trying to address subjective conditions by ascribing them to everyone but themselves. They also sound like people who wish to live in a world among Pew's blessed 15 percent of non-Internet-connecters. Unasked in the Pew poll was the percentage of Americans who use the Internet out of necessity yet secretly wish they could live without it.
People who think of the Internet as isolating and diluting are not wrong. Younger and more Internet-enthused people may not have reached the stage in life when social isolation becomes weighty, driven by momentum that's increasingly hard to push back against. Everyone wants to be your friend when you're 25; when you're 50, everyone calls you “Ma'am” and “Sir” on their way out the door.
For the young and energetic, the Internet is a healthy supplement to the natural process of socialization. Older people have experienced the formation and loss of hundreds of friendships and become skeptical of the social mechanism itself because it rubs against a lifetime of little losses. It's hard not to hear the declarative howl in Fran/tzel's skepticism: "I do not want to be reminded of what I've lost."
Part of what galls the old about the Internet is its prioritization of the weak tie, a connection to a person or subject that provides many of the benefits of intimate friendship while requiring a minimal amount of energy and care. Describing the phenomenon of the weak social tie, sociologist Mark Granovetter argued its value could be largely attributed to the lack of intimacy. Because humans tend to bond with intimate mirrors of themselves, weak ties offer the benefits of exposure to areas a person otherwise would have never thought to explore. For this reason, weak social ties tend also to be effective in helping a person find a job or a place to live, pursuits that are heavily reliant on word of mouth.
Concerns about the falseness of the Internet and its various modes of connecting people are often dismissed because of the substantive gains from weak-tie references and because many of the most active social media users tend to be more socially active in general. The corollary truth is that not all stages of life, and not all people, benefit from more active social arrangements nor the happy accidents of weak-tie discoveries.
In the rush to make the Internet ubiquitous, it sometimes feels as if its most enthusiastic architects haven't left enough space clear for things that can't, and shouldn't, be done through the Internet—or things we know we won't want to do through the Internet as we age.
Creating norms for these things becomes increasingly difficult because they are so subjective and, in some ways hypocritical. I wanted all my friends to be on Facebook yesterday, but I don't want that today. Go figure. Both are true; neither disproves the other. And while there is an obnoxiousness in hearing aging rich people deride the value of other people's experiences, there is a shade of truth in their wrinkly dissatisfaction.
There are things you have when you're young that you begin to lose as you age, at which point many people decide they'd rather not chase after fleeting illuminations of the Internet but instead want to prolong what light they've got left. And to them it may well seem as if the Internet is a syphon just as much as it is delivery device.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.