The Web vs the World

Is the Internet ruining our lives or making them better?


The web and the real world don't always get along. Though the Internet has revolutionised our society in countless positive ways, the always-on network has also created various problems.

Ultimately, it's a series of trade-offs: We gain certain benefits from its presence and accept certain drawbacks. In many cases, it's hard to say which side comes out ahead, and in some instances, the pluses and minuses harden into something like open combat. Here are 10 conflicts that pit the web against the world.

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Medical insight vs medical insanity

Thanks to websites like WebMD, the Internet has turned us into a world of diagnosticians. All you have to do is type in your age, check off your symptoms, and shazam! The web will present you with a personalised list of diseases that might be killing you this very second. The inevitable result: The Internet has also turned us into a world of hypochondriacs. Speaking of which gotta run, that headache I woke up with this morning is looking more and more like mad cow disease.

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Personal support vs instant support

With the web, customer support is always just a click away, provided that you don't mind surfing through a maze of forums run by users, virtual help desks run by bots and virtual help desks run by people who act like bots. The Internet has created a culture of do-it-yourself service, where the effort to reach an actual person can make you nostalgic for the mellow comfort of a root canal. Some companies have even started charging fees for letting you speak to a live support agent.

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Cheaper flights vs hidden costs

These days, you can jump online to find flights, compare costs and book tickets, all in a matter of minutes. Travel sites make scouting out super deals easier than ever, but they also indirectly encourage carriers to develop sneaky fee policies. To keep their ticket prices competitive, airlines break out addon fees for seat assignments, baggage checking and other previously included services. As a result, the listed fares seem relatively low, and most people don't notice all of the tacked-on tolls until after they've clicked and committed.

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Being present vs being connected

The Internet makes us more connected than we've ever been. At any given moment, I can slide out my smartphone and see where my friends are and what they're up to, and share similar information about myself. But how many times have you been at a concert or a movie and seen a group of teenagers tapping away on their phones through the entire show? Some people spend so much time telling the world about what they're doing that they fail to experience it with their full attention. The key to winning this battle is to find a balance between living in the moment and exiting it to check for updates.

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Staying in touch vs moving on

The nice thing about Facebook is that it lets you find forgotten acquaintances from your past. The annoying thing about Facebook is that it lets forgotten acquaintances from your past find you. Sure, it's fun to catch up with an old co-worker or college buddy with whom you'd lost touch, if you do it only occasionally and you pick the occasion. But sometimes, you lost touch for a reason. Do you really want your old fling back in your life? Relationships evolve for a reason. The Internet has a tendency to disrupt that natural evolution and force your past into the present.

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Getting context vs getting TMI

Social media enables us to see a whole new side of people we only sort of know, family photos from the dude in accounting for example, or philosophical ruminations from your girlfriend's Uncle Ned. For all the interesting context this can provide, however, it can also generate some serious cases of Too-Much-Informationitis. You know what I'm talking about: the colleague who posts incessant religious rants on Facebook, or the cousin who sends out disturbingly revealing photos on Flickr. The web opens windows into our acquaintances' lives and not infrequently, we just wish someone would board them up.

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Window shopping vs instant shopping

From electronics stores to bookstores, many brick-and-mortar businesses are struggling to remain competitive with online counterparts that offer cheap prices and vast inventories. Shopping on the web is great of course, but so is real world shopping: You can physically try products before buying them, and you can walk home with your purchase that very day. Ideally, we would be able to keep the best of both worlds, but only time will tell how this battle will end.

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In-depth news vs free news

News flash: Some of the world's largest news institutions, and lots of smaller ones, face uncertain futures. Publications are still trying to figure out how to generate enough income online to make up for the dollars lost due to the ongoing demise of print, in the meantime numerous jobs are being cut and reporting efforts scaled back. But regardless of how or where you read it, professional journalism fills a crucial role in our society that casual blogging cannot. If outlets like The New York Times end up being defeated, the casualties will spread far beyond those companies' walls.

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Reliability vs accessibility

Wikipedia makes it easy to find information, but hard to gauge the information's accuracy. The group-edited encyclopedia model illustrates the clash between immediacy and reliability, but it's not the only source of digital uncertainty. From Wikipedia-based blunders to blog-fuelled rumours, the web is a Wild West of information and misinformation. The Internet hasn't killed accuracy, but it has certainly made it harder to recognise.

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