People talk a lot about the happiness risks of the Internet, such as how online shopping or celebrity news can suck away our time, or how Facebook can foster comparison with other people.
The Internet amplifies aspects of human nature, so I try to watch out for its bad effects. But I also remind myself of how happy the internet makes me! I try never to take it for granted.
For instance, I’m often haunted by some quotation or anecdote I read somewhere, someplace, in the past. When I read it, it didn’t strike me as important, but now for some reason I desperately want to re-read it. So often, with just a few bits of information, the internet locates what I’m looking for, to my immense relief.
For instance, when I was doing my research for Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I came across an anecdote in a diary related to World War II. I loved it — but I lost it.
I’d read so many wartime diaries — from where did this story come? I was sure that I’d copied the passage into my huge trove of notes and quotations, but somehow it had vanished. I thought it was in Jock Colville’s wonderful Fringes of Power, and I actually paged through the whole book, but couldn’t find it.
Finally, I turned to the internet. Now, I couldn’t remember the story exactly. I hadn’t read it in five or six years. And search, search, search… Eureka! I found the story that had eluded me for so long.
Here it is. It wasn’t Jock Colville, it was Harold Nicolson. In June 1941 he was working at the wartime Ministry of Information, and he wrote in his diary for June 10:
The Middle East have no sense of publicity. The Admiralty is even worse. We complain that there are no photographs of the sinking of the Bismarck. Tripp says that the official photographer was in the Suffolk and that the Suffolk was too far away.
We say, ‘But why didn’t one of our reconnaissance machines fly over the ship and take photographs?’
He replies, ‘Well you see, you must see, well upon my word, well after all, an Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.’
Is he right? I felt abashed when he said it. I think he is right.
At the beginning of the summer, I had a similar experience. One of the pitifully few scraps of knowledge that I retained from college was a single line, which I remembered as something like, “Can one coin make a man rich? Pile up one coin and then another, and at a certain point, he becomes rich.” I was preoccupied with this idea and very much wanted to re-read this line.
Where did it come from? I pulled out a few college books and started leafing through them. Then I thought, “Hey, I could check online.” Bingo. Erasmus, The Praise of Folly. The funny thing is that I hadn’t even underlined this story in the book! And it wasn’t even in the actual text of the book, it was in the editor’s note in the footnote explaining the text’s reference to the “argument of the growing heap.” And yet it was the only thing I remembered from that class, so many years ago — and I was able to find it again, in a flash.
If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.
(I explain my preoccupation with the significance of the “argument of the growing heap” here.)
The internet is a good servant, and a bad master. But a good, good, good servant.
How about you?
Does the internet add or subtract from your daily happiness?