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Down on the Farm: Wasting time faster

It is the topic of somber conferences and alarming stories on public radio: the speed of Internet service in our rural areas is falling way behind the rest of the world.

Internet speed in the U.S. ranks 13th in the world, and is about one-third the speed of the leader, South Korea.

But in America's rural areas, it is worse. Internet speed is less than one-fourth our already low national average.

According to one statistical analysis, Internet service here in the American countryside is slower than Africa's.

The studies focus on the economic impact of the slow service. If you make your living on the Internet, goes the argument, you'd just as well be farming with horses.

Of course, the real issue is that the Internet is used far more often to avoid work than to finish it.

As the coffee brews in the morning, most Internet users start reading through the equivalent of 43 newspapers stacked on their front step.

With slow Internet service, when you click on a headline, it takes a good few seconds for the article to pop up on the screen, seconds which pile up in to minutes, which pile up into hours.

Reading online is much like surfing 100 channels of satellite television: most of it is trash and unless you employ ironclad discipline, you end up gobbling up mind-candy by the bagful.

Eventually, things deteriorate even further as people check up on their friends on Facebook, play games, gawk at images some might consider unwholesome or chat with people they'll never have to meet face-to-face.

Work? Most people who work on the Internet rely less on Internet speed than do those who play on the Internet.

The economic impact of low Internet speed comes down to a question nobody asks: Does it really matter if we waste our time more efficiently?

Since we're already wasting our time, maybe it's best if we have to wait a bit for our time-wasting diversions to show up on the screen so we don't end up with so much mental clutter.

What's missing is the resolve to tackle the real problem: When given the choice, people would rather be entertained than work.

Like lab mice in an experiment, we keep pushing the button that makes us giggle, even if it causes us to miss out on the food pellets.

If we do improve internet service, 94.7 percent of it will be used, not to produce and sell widgets, but to download stupid video clips.

"We weren't ready for kids who watch video," said the phone man when I whined to him about my slow Internet service.

I didn't tell him that my main use for faster Internet would be to watch amateur blooper videos of cats that get their paws caught in ceiling fan cords and spin around howling bloody murder until they get thrown against the dining room wall and run under the bed.

Hilarious, but it sort of ruins the effect if the video pauses when the cat is mid-air.

Last spring, I spent 43 hours watching Susan Boyle sing. That time could have been reduced to 13 hours if we had decent Internet speed.

Whether or not I would use the freed-up 30 hours to clean the garage or start a new business is an open question. Maybe I would have just found more cat videos.

Yes, it's those kids, the phone man and I agreed. They come home from school and play on the computer. The increased traffic overwhelms that switch box across from the graveyard and pretty soon the economy grinds to a halt so kids can play shoot-em-up with their friends in Lithuania.

That theory held water until I remembered that 86.5 percent of the kids in our neighborhood are Amish, a group not known for heavy Internet usage.

Then it hit me: Even though the Amish actually farm with horses, I'll bet one Amish family gets more done in a day than 50 families sequestered in front of their computers watching cat videos.

So, a question for those worried about the effects of slow Internet service on the countryside: If we get faster service so the cat videos download instantly, will we spend the extra time shocking oats?