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The Web vs the world: 9 epic battles

Is the Internet ruining our lives or making them better? When you consider epic struggles like these, it's hard to say for sure.

  • 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 like Orbitz and Travelocity 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 add-on fees for seat assignments, baggage checking, and other previously included (or nonexistent) 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. Sneaky fees are a shady way of doing business — and ultimately they negate much of the value to consumers of comparison shopping.
  • 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 personalized 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. It's a tug-of-war between automation and human responsiveness — and at this point, the Web's canned goodness (and badness) may have the upper hand.
  • 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 game 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.

  • 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 reportorial 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. (When is the last time you saw Gawker publish a 4000-word exposé based on a month-long investigation?) If outlets like The New York Times end up being defeated, the casualties will spread far beyond those companies' walls.
  • 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 coworker 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 freshman-year fling back in your life? What about the guy who sat behind you in 11th-grade history, grunting and snorting? Relationships evolve for a reason. The Internet has a tendency to disrupt that natural evolution and force your past into the present.
  • 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.
  • 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. (Plus, you have a compelling reason to take a shower and put on some freakin' pants.) Ideally, we would be able to keep the best of both worlds, but only time will tell how this battle will end.
  • 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 Web-caused clash between immediacy and reliability, but it's not the only source of digital uncertainty. From Wikipedia-based blunders to blog-fueled rumors, the Web is a Wild West of information and misinformation. The Internet hasn't killed accuracy, but it has certainly made it harder to recognize.
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