Speed Dial

by Eric Bergeson, April 7, 2010

It is the topic of somber conferences and alarming stories on public radio: the speed of internet service in our rural areas is falling way behind the rest of the world.

Internet speed in the United States ranks thirtieth in the world, and is about one-third the speed of the leader, South Korea.

But in America’s rural areas, it is worse. Internet speed is less than one-fourth our already low national average.

According to one statistical analysis, internet serv­ice here in the American countryside is slower than Africa’s.

The studies focus on the economic impact of the slow service. If you make your living on the internet, goes the argument, you’d just as well be farming with horses.

Of course, the real issue is that the internet is used far more often to avoid work than to finish it.

As the coffee brews in the morning, most internet users start reading through the equivalent of 43 news­papers stacked on their front step.

With slow internet service, when you click on a headline, it takes a good few seconds for the article to pop up on the screen, seconds which pile up in to minutes, which pile up into hours.

Reading online is much like surfing 100 channels of satellite television: most of it is trash and unless you employ ironclad discipline, you end up gobbling up mind-candy by the bagful.

Eventually, things deteriorate even further as peo­ple check up on their friends on Facebook, play games, gawk at images some might consider unwhole­some or chat with people they’ll never have to meet face-to-face.

Work? Most people who work on the internet rely less on internet speed than do those who play on the internet.

The economic impact of low internet speed comes down to a question nobody asks: Does it really matter if we waste our time more efficiently?

Since we’re already wasting our time, maybe its best if we have to wait a bit for our time-wasting diversions to show up on the screen so we don’t end up with so much mental clutter.

What’s missing is the resolve to tackle the real problem: When given the choice, people would rather be entertained than work.

Like lab mice in an experiment, we keep pushing the button that makes us giggle, even if it causes us to miss out on the food pellets.

If we do improve internet service, 94.7% of it will be used, not to produce and sell widgets, but to download stupid video clips.

“We weren’t ready for kids who watch video,” said the phone man when I whined to him about my slow internet service.

I didn’t tell him that my main use for faster inter­net would be to watch amateur blooper videos of cats that get their paws caught in ceiling fan cords and spin around howling bloody murder until they get thrown against the dining room wall and run under the bed.

Hilarious, but it sort of ruins the effect if the video pauses when the cat is mid-air.

Last spring, I spent 43 hours watching Susan Boyle sing. That time could have been reduced to 13 hours if we had decent internet speed.

Whether or not I would use the freed-up 30 hours to clean the garage or start a new business is an open question. Maybe I would have just found more cat videos.

Yes, it’s those kids, the phone man and I agreed. They come home from school and play on the com­puter. The increased traffic overwhelms that switch box across from the graveyard and pretty soon the economy grinds to a halt so kids can play shoot-em-up with their friends in Lithuania.

That theory held water until I remembered that 86.5% of the kids in our neighborhood are Amish, a group not known for heavy internet usage.

Then it hit me:

Even though the Amish actually farm with horses, I’ll bet one Amish family gets more done in a day than fifty families sequestered in front of their computers watching cat videos.

So, a question for those worried about the effects of slow internet service on the countryside: if we get faster service so the cat videos download instantly, will we spend the extra time shocking oats?

(Visit Eric's weblog at www.countryscribe.com.)

3 Responses to Speed Dial

  1. trebuchet Reply

    April 9, 2010 at 1:27 am

    You’ve nailed this pretty well. The usual narrative spun out by folks in the media is that there’s a ‘digital divide,’ and those w/ lousy internet access are akin to the hillbillies without plumbing in days of yore. To be pitied, of course, and then to be hoisted up to a civilized state. Huh. Hank Thoreau seemed to have done fine without it. Melville. Mr. Einstein. Never mind that we’ve been inundated with addle-pated flibbertygibbets since the rise of the net, we’re all supposed to take it on faith that this technology, usually nothing more than a gawk-and-gossip gadget, is the sinny qua non of coherent thought and cultural achievement.

    • Mark Scaramella Reply

      April 9, 2010 at 10:47 am

      I appreciate Mr. Trebuchet’s comment. A study out of Germany a couple years ago showed that what the internet primarily teaches is scatterbraainedness, or short-attention spans because it’s so easy to jump from one thing to the other. Following the thread of a novel or a continuous story line is very hard for net-heads nowadays. Flash and Dash thinking. Conventional learning which worked fine for centuries is “too boring.” When I taught computers — I was teaching a variety of computer applications and fundamentals — at a junior college in Silicon Valley the last thing I wanted the “students” to do is peck away at computers during class. I shut off the classroom master switch. “Computers in the Classroom” (except for the one with the overhead projector, perhaps) is an impediment to learning, not a help, even when the subject is computers. Time will tell if all of this techno-mania is really helping anything. It’s entertaining, to be sure. And a handy reference for ordinary things. But real-life and real books are still the best way to become a real adult.

  2. Taylor Ellis Reply

    April 22, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I also agree that the net is a big distraction for most people most of the time, but it does provide a few services that some, like myself, consider essential. The best example is job searching. I am 30 years old and every job I’ve ever had since I was 18 I got through searching the internet. If I couldn’t send and receive email to contact employers I would be at a major disadvantage compared to someone who did. For young people trying to make a career, the internet is really the only way to search for jobs and put yourself out there. Not an issue if you plan on staying in your Amish community, but very important to most college grads. For example, to get employed with the US Govt nowadays you need to make a profile on “usajobs.com” and search their listings for vacancies. You can’t just show up somewhere and get hired. Companies and institutions put openings online to reach more applicants and make it more competetive. So although you are right that much of the internet is crap, it has become a necessary tool for young job seekers, especially “in this economy!” Other examples of why young people need net access include searching for grad schools and professors to work with, grants to apply for, and the ability to research sources and contact people from a wider geographic area. Of course most people aren’t that productive when they use the net, but we can’t let them hold back the ones that are. It’s not like telephones are are a pointless invention just because they are abused by telemarketers, nor is net access unimportant just because it is used pointlessly by so many people.

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