Bloggers are having fun with a report in The Sun that Elton John reportedly ‘wants the Internet closed down’ because it is distracting individuals from real communication, and creativity, such as writing music at the piano. What he is actually reported as saying was: ‘I do think it would be an incredible experiment to shut down the whole [I]nternet for five years and see what sort of art is producted over that span.’ Impossible, yes. But he does capture a key research issue in communications.
As media like the Internet become key infrastructures of everyday life, it is exceedingly difficulty to examine their societal implications. Some of the best studies of the social impact of the telephone, for example, were opportunistic studies of areas where telephone services were blacked out for a period of time. One of my own favourite studies was the impact of the Galaxy IV pager blackout across the USA. [Dutton, William H., Anita Elberse, Traci Hong, and Sorin Matei. “‘Beepless in America’: The Social Impact of the Galaxy IV Pager Blackout.” Chap. 1 in Access Denied in the Information Age, edited by Stephen Lax, 9-32. London, U.K.: Palgrave, 2001.]
In short, Elton John is expressing a very prominent view of the degree that the use of electronic media might substitute for, rather than complement, traditional activities, and proposes one hypothetical quasi-experimental design to test it. Impossible to conduct, but an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.