In this Internet era, we have less and less time and more and more interesting things to do. We simply cannot cope with the number of possibilities available to us. If we cannot choose what to do we often procrastinate. But, tomorrow does not solve the problem of today. Tomorrow, there will be more tweets to follow, more blogs to read, more YouTube videos to watch. Sound familiar?
The unfulfilled possibilities that the Internet opens up could create a sense of frustration. If we cannot cope with the flood of information, we may feel that we are missing out on interesting and important things happening in the world around us.
When will someone come up with a survival kit for the Internet? More and more tools are being developed, each giving us a sense of control, even it is it often a false one. We are in the cockpit, fully in control of our lives. Even if the sense of control is false, it helps us re-establish our cognitive balance, which has been shaken by the fast development of the Internet. There is an emerging publishing genre which discusses ways to cope in the Internet era. There are clinics dealing with Internet-dependence, addiction, and depression.
Although we are bombarded by information about our limitless world, there is a limit to the ways in which we use the Internet and we need to question up till what point is it useful. In the remaining text I identify three limits to our use of the Internet. Please read it and add more.
This limit is rather obvious, but often forgotten. The Internet cannot stretch our time. We are still limited to 24 hours in any one day. What can fit in 24 hours is limited by our biological needs. In one day we have to sleep, eat, work, have an emotional and cultural life, relax, and socialise. We may squeeze our time and sleep less or socialise less, but eventually we will hit the limit of 24 hours per day. I won’t speak about the imbalances that we can create and how we endanger our health, both physical and psychological.
As we cannot extend the number of hours in a day, we may try to do more with the time we have. This is probably the main motivation behind multitasking. We watch TV, browse the Net and chat with friends on Skype at the same time. This might make us feel that we are doing more with the same amount of time and even that we are managing to bypass the limit of time.
But, as psychological research shows, this is simply not true. Multitasking does not help us to do more in the same amount of time. We do not watch TV properly, whether it is a soap opera that is supposed to relax us or a serious documentary that is meant to inspire us. We waste our time browsing the Internet. Our chat with our friends on Skype is superficial. The basics of psychology state that we can handle approximately eight pieces of information in our working memory at any one time. Try to memorise numbers or words and you will run into a wall around the eight mark, give or take a few. Why it is important?
Working memory is essential for thinking. We connect various pieces of information, reflect, retrieve some missing piece from our long-term memory, reassemble new thoughts and so on. Has the Internet helped in this exercise? It has helped in retrieving information. Instead of taking the encyclopedia from the bookshelf, we Google particular information. But the Internet cannot push the ultimate limit of our working memory.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Dunbar’s number is 148. This limit is related to the size and processing capacity of the neocortex part of our brain. So how can we have thousands of friends on the Facebook?
Dunbar’s number is the limit of the fast growing Internet-based social networking. It is particularly important for (e) diplomats; for them, the quality and diversity of social contact is highly relevant.
Like all limits, the limits of the Internet will force us to make choices. First, we have to be aware of the need to choose. Then we have to make smart choices giving our time and concentration to those Internet activities that are most relevant for our professional and private lives.
Someone once said that when you do not know where you want to go, all roads will get you ‘there’. It was easier in ancient times when all roads led to Rome.
Today, roads can lead anywhere, and still bring us ‘somewhere’.