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‘Internet Age’ has increased accessibility but also accelerated life’s pace, researcher says

Presentation outlined pros, cons of modern technology

The myriad ways in which technology has fueled the ever-accelerating pace of life in the 21st century was the topic of a March 25 virtual presentation by The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research.

In the presentation, “Pace in the Internet Age,” Stephen Kern, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, outlined the pros and cons of having 24-hour access to a seemingly limitless supply of information at one’s fingertips.

One upside is that technological advancements enable people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to prepare for life-altering circumstances such as weather emergencies, Kern said.

Stephen Kern“The ability to predict the future increases by one day in terms of predicting a hurricane every decade using computer models,” Kern said. “In 1920, they looked at almanacs, which was just superstition. You knew when it was raining when your head was wet. They didn’t have this knowledge. We have this knowledge (now), and anyone has this knowledge. You know what’s going to happen – a hurricane’s coming in three days.”

Kern noted that certain human inventions have created a paradox: Technological advancements have resulted in more accurate weather forecasting, but the carbon footprint necessary to manufacture and power some forms of technology can have a harmful effect on the environment.

“Technology creates all kind of environmental problems,” he said, “and they’re also making it possible to manage them.”

Another benefit of advanced technology is the ability to diagnose and treat medical conditions earlier and more effectively, especially rare diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s, Kern said.

“We didn’t know a lot about them (in past decades). There are certain tests now that we have with these diseases,” he said. “Rich and poor have access to that. It’s a good thing.”

In a question-and-answer session following Kern’s presentation, one participant pointed out that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge in people working remotely resulted in greater reliance on technology to do business and gather information. Research materials that were previously obtainable only by visiting a library’s brick-and-mortar location were digitized and made available online — increasing access, especially for individuals with disabilities.  

“Technology has opened things up,” Kern said.

The pandemic also emphasized the importance of technology in staying connected to colleagues, friends and family who live far away, Kern said.

Before the internet, “you said goodbye to your son or daughter. They got on a ship to go somewhere, go to Australia or somewhere far away from the United States, you may never hear from them,” he said. “It would be intolerable for us to do without all these things – have a child go away and you can’t talk to them, you don’t hear from them for the next year, let alone get a message to them, let alone know that they got it.”

The discussion also touched on the digital divide among generations. One participant said she’s noticed that many young people are accustomed to being constantly plugged in with smartphones, tablets and laptops, while some older adults prefer to disconnect from technology and interact face to face.  

Kern noted that adults of all ages express reluctance to return to a simpler way of life and give up modern conveniences.

“No one wants a slow computer. No one wants a dial-up computer. We want (internet access) now,” Kern said. “It’s transformative, but who wants to not have it?”

Participants also discussed how round-the-clock connectivity can lead to information overload and a growing intolerance to handling downtime without a device in hand.

“There are all kinds of wheels and quadrants going at the same time and many things happening at once,” Kern said. “Is that good or bad or is it going to get worse? I don’t know. It’s hard to keep up.”

The “Pace in the Internet Age” presentation is part of the Center for Historical Research’s 2021-2023 lecture series, “Crisis, Uncertainty, and History: Trajectories and Experiences of Accelerated Change.” More information about upcoming events in the series.

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