Have you ever gone to your computer in the morning and sighed with despair at the overflowing flood of emails in your email account pointing to various articles and newsgroups and friends? Have you ever thought to yourself: "How am I ever going to get through all that?" So you feverishly work your way through the emails, one at a time, picking out what you want to follow through with and discarding what you don't want, and at the end of it thinking: "That was a job well done!" After that, have you then surfed around hour after hour hopping from one article or video clip to another, carried away by a current whose destrination you know not? But was it really 'work'? How much of it was 'essential'?
Few people who use the internet step back and ask themselves what they are actually doing. Like a vast vacuum cleaner of the mind, it seems to suck them in to its sounds, sights and thoughts. It's like you can suddenly tap into the minds of millions of people at at once. However, the reality is that you never can. You can select - usually randomly - this or that to read, look at or listen to, depending on the hyperlinks that connect them. You disappear into a labyrynth only to emerge at the other end wondering what it is you have actually done.
Because of this vast amount of data at our fingertips and our inability to absorb even the tiniest fraction of it, cyberman (if I can call him that) has developed some interesting behaviour patterns. Research done by Swede Jakob Nielsen has determined that web-users don't read in a linear fashion as one might read a novel one line at a time but in a pattern resembling the letter 'F'. Typical reading behaviour consists of reading the first couple of lines, then skipping a block of text by running their eyes down the left margin, reading part of another line a few lines on, and then skimming to the bottom of the page along the left margin again. Nielsen said that most users 'see' a single webpage in less than 10 seconds, and only one in ten pages is read for more than two minutes.
Apart from the fact that it is true it is more difficult to read text on a screen than on paper, what this research shows is that we are far less impacted by what we read online than we are by what we read in a book. We're not really concentrating very much at all online and are mostly in a passive, non-interactive state.
In 1882 Nietzsche told his secretary that that what we read impacts and shapes our thoughts. Can you imagine what all the junk that we read casually online does to our thinking? Our brain is a sponge and even though we may think we have skipped over something, even a fraction of a second's exposure to an image will impact the brain like a subliminal message. We store everything. Can you imagine how much junk is stored in our heads, supplying material for dreams, daydreaming, thoughts about life, and the like?
"The medium is the message", according to Marshall McLuhan, and each new medium we use changes the way we think. The internet has produced a generation of 'skimmers' who don't really get into deep thought because there is simply far too much available to process. McLuhan further insists that "the network [is] the most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use" (Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Norton: 2010, p.276). Research has shown that the dynamic alternating between different activities on the internet lowers productivity and is best viewed as a "constant distraction" leading users into irrelevent activity. There's simply too much information for us to meaningfully use so we end up in a kind of information rat-race trying to stay updated in an ocean of data as we sustain the incessant production of information designed for consumption ad nauseam. And whilst the internet is a fantastic source of information, it's also one of the worst distractions ever: it not only grabs our attention but distorts our thinking too. As Carr notes: "We are what we click".
That, frankly, bothers me. It makes your average man or woman become what one commentator calls "a sucker for irrelevency" that forces us along a kind of digital Darwinian "survival of the busiest". At one point I belonged to somewhere in the order of 30 Messianic discussion networks hoping that I could keep up-to-fate with what was going on in the Messianic movement, not to mention the 20 or Evangelical ones and others like homeschooling and history. I could have spent the rest of my life just keeping up with that little group. In the end I pruned them down to about 5 groups and even then found it was not allowing me to get on with what I had to do. Even managing my own online groups was taking up a huge chunk of time.
If nothing else the Internet can show us where our heart is. What interests us is where our desires are operating. For millions of people the Internet is a porn trap. For tens of millions of others it's just a place to socialise or 'hang out' but not in a way that develops lasting relationships as a rule. The frightening thing about cyberspace is that it has become an alternative reality into which people are more than willing to disappear because it requires less responsibility and accountability from them than real life interactions with people. Little wonder, then, that the latter have become more shallow. Instead of our interactions with people determining our life, we have become subject to what Thorstein Vebeln once called "technological determinism".
We don't run the technology any more, it runs us. Technology is no longer neutral and has become an autonomous force beyond human control. The "powers and principalities" that control the individual websites influence and control the minds that absorb its text, images and sounds (Col.1:16).
In his book, Payback, Frank Schirmacher asks us how we can take back control of our thinking in the face of the cyber revolution. The answer is the same as before the internet even existed. We have to discipline ourselves by deciding what it is we are, what we believe in, what we want, and how to be selective in our search for truth. As believers our primary source of true information must always be the Bible. However, we also need to be able to read, write, think logically, do research, pray, and know how to listen to the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). I have always had a hunger for knowledge and interested myself in many fields but I have also had to ask myself what I want that knowledge for - is it to simply consume upon my lusts, to be popular, admired, and sought after - or has there been some altruistic goal?
Ask youself why you search the Internet. Ask yourself what your goals are. Am I wasting my time? Are you being a good steward of the resources Yahweh has given you in the place and circumsctances your find myself in? Do you have a concrete plan for your day or do you simply allow yourself to be sucked in on a cyberspace journey without a destination?
For me, the internet is a resource to communicate the gospel, keep in touch with people and events, obtain knowledge that can be used to help explain what life is for and all about, and occasionally to have some light relief and entertainment. Though I spend a great deal of my day on a computer (since I am retired), I am mostly writing with a view to sharing the Gospel. The internet only occupies a fraction of my time. In a different age I probably would have been writing with quill and paper. Thirty years ago I was witnessing with a typewriter and a photocopier.
For believers facing the maze called the internet I can only advise you to do what Christians and Messianics are supposed to do anyway - act in moderation with clear-cut goals, exercising self-discipline. Don't let boredom suck you in to the alternative cyber-reality and into dangerous places. Use it wisely and selectively. We're not helpless. We have choice. Part of maturing and being a good steward is to exercise it wisely when it is needed.
 Pelle Snickars, Det rastlösa sökandet på internet