Fashioning a gamble to survive

KIMBERLEY NOBLE,K.N. September 28 1998

Fashioning a gamble to survive

KIMBERLEY NOBLE,K.N. September 28 1998

The sadness of cyberspace


Ross Laver

Thank you, Ken Starr. Whether the Clinton-baiting independent counsel realizes it or not, he has solved one of modern life’s great mysteries.

And no, this one has nothing to do with cigars. At least, not directly.

The conundrum has to do with, of all things, the Internet. Ever since the global computer network began to attract widespread public attention a few years back, technology experts and assorted pipepuffers have been arguing about its cultural and sociological significance. Is the Internet an important public-policy tool that strengthens democracy by facilitating the exchange of information between political leaders and their constituents? Or is it—as some well-intentioned critics have alleged— little more than a high-tech porno palace?

Anyone who has ventured on-line to scroll through Starr’s sexually explicit account of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky now knows the answer. It is both. In this case, simultaneously.

Depending on your personal proclivities, you may or may not find this revelation as fascinating as the fact that the leader of the free world once fell asleep in mid-conversation after a steamy session of phone sex with an eagerto-please White House intern. But in the Internet community, the Starr report was certifiât) ly big news, and not just because of its lurid contents. Around the world, millions of people discovered the salacious details of Clinton’s sexual escapades not by reading a newspaper or watching television, but the same way many journalists did—by downloading a copy of the 445-page report directly from the congressional Web site, or from any of the thousands of other Internet destinations that promptly began to distribute it.

The release of the Starr report was, in the opinion of Janet Kornblum, an editor with the CNET on-line news service, the Internet’s “coming of age” as a legitimate mass medium. “There was Sam Donaldson on national TV reading from a printout at a press conference with Clinton’s lawyers, telling them that, no, he didn’t know what page it was because he had gotten it from the Inter-

A new study suggests that Internet use leads to higher levels of misery and loneliness

net.” Not to mention the CNN broadcaster who, seated with her back to the camera, kept reading aloud passages of the report from a desktop computer running Netscape Navigator. “It wasn’t just the religious converts—the Net-heads—who knew the Internet’s magic that day,” Kornblum wrote. “The difference was the magnitude: this time, the whole world could see.”

She’s right, of course, although in the interests of public decency it might have been preferable had this watershed event, this historical turning point, involved something more seemly than Clinton’s sociopathic sexual urges.

Then again, perhaps Starr’s report on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, in all its pathetic and depressing detail, is an apt symbol of the new Internet era. It certainly seems to fit with the findings of a $2.3-million study of the effects of virtual communication by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Featured in this month’s issue of The American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, the study concludes that Internet use leads to small but statistically significant increases in misery and loneliness, and a decline in psychological well-being.

The study, funded by a blue-chip collection of technology companies ranging from Apple Computer to Panasonic, was based on up to two years of data from 169 participants, each of whom was rated independently on a subjective scale for depression, stress and loneliness. In addition, the researchers took account of the time participants spent communicating with their families and the size of their social circles. “These were normal adults and their families and, on average, for those who used the Internet most, things got worse,” said Robert Kraut, a social psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction Institute.

Kraut and his fellow researchers, who professed themselves “shocked” by the study’s findings, hastened to add that they are all computer owners and avid users of the Internet. That being the case, it’s entirely possible that they, too, downloaded a copy of the Starr report. Isn’t participatory democracy grand? So why is everyone so glum?