The internet can be a wonderful place. It’s got cats. It’s got Netflix Instant. Hell, it’s even got Reddit, which people are actually using to propose to each other. The latest studies show that a whopping 93% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are online. That may seem like a good thing at first glance, but even though Google is amazing for people who want to learn about Oxford commas, and Facebook is great for people who can’t remember the birthdays of close relatives, the sad irony is that the easier it becomes to access the internet, the harder it is for us to disconnect.
The internet gets a little bit more monstrous and all-encompassing every day. There was a time when you could only find free internet access at libraries. Then free Wi-Fi started showing up in coffee shops, and now, you can’t even walk into a McDonald’s without spotting a “Free Wi-Fi” sign on the door. This month, Starbucks partnered with Google to boost the Wi-Fi speeds of over 7,000 of its U.S. franchises over the next year and a half —you know, in case your free cafe internet wasn’t neck-breakingly fast enough. In London, a recent transportation study showed that cab riders are 75% more likely to pick a ride that offers free Wi-Fi on the road.
What's wrong with the internet becoming more publicly available? A few things: First, it screws with your personal freedom in ways you might not immediately recognize. Remember when airplanes and hotels and coffee shops didn’t have Wi-Fi? It was always nice to have some sort of refuge from the internet's kung-fu grip — even if only for a few minutes.
Airlines like U.S. Airways are dramatically expanding on their onboard Wi-Fi offerings. As vacation hotels and airplanes start giving out free internet, it's getting more and more difficult to escape the hunger for an online connection. And while we'd like to think it's easy to abstain from internet use for a couple hours, there's no harder itch to scratch than a new notification that's gone unchecked.
The growth of free Wi-Fi is also troubling because public internet use tends to limit social interaction. We’ve all been there: everyone’s at the dinner table enjoying a nice dinner out, but every couple minutes, two or three people go quiet as they whip out their phones to check their news feeds. Everyone's been guilty of it at some point, and it makes you wonder if life would be better if the internet wasn't so close at hand.
It may not be easy, but it's entirely possible to self-regulate when it comes to internet use. You can force yourself to activate airplane mode for a couple hours a day, and you can get everyone to play the phone stacking game at dinner. But because the internet is such a productive and indispensable part of our lives, it doesn't immediately seem like something we should have to give up. That's the real tragedy of the free Wi-Fi behemoth: it's no longer clear where we can even go to experience the bliss of forced disconnectedness.