The Internet or your nose?

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Which could you live without if you had to choose one: your sense of smell or the Internet? Fifty-three percent of Millennials would rather live without smell than lose their Internet-connected technologies. That’s the statistic quoted in a YouTube video that I saw in a social media class I’m currently taking at the University of Washington.

It was just one “fact” of many that were presented that night as part of a larger discussion on the impact of social media, but it’s the one that gave me the most pause. Has the Internet become so important that young people would sacrifice one of their basic five senses — a sense that helps humans navigate the world? The answer is apparently yes.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, the Internet helps us navigate the world, too.”

You’re right. That’s why I’m taking a social media technology class. But which is more important? A basic sense like smell or the Internet? I’ve become slightly obsessed with the question, although my answer remains firmly this: I would without a doubt give up the Internet before my nose.

I don’t know how “they” measure such a thing, but I suspect the 53% number for Millennials is close to the truth. I wondered how much higher it was for the (so far nameless) generation that comes after them. Meaning, my daughters and their friends. I conducted my own small poll at home to find out.

With no hesitation, they all answered the same. Their noses would go.

“What would we do without the Internet?” they all wondered, quite seriously.

“What would we do without our noses?” I asked.

“My seventh-grade algebra teacher didn’t have his sense of his smell and he was happy. He couldn’t smell garbage or city streets,” one girl told me.

OK, I conceded, so arguably not having a sense of smell could be beneficial in some cases. Not being able to smell a classroom full of stinky, pubescent kids definitely qualifies as one.

“Why wouldn’t I choose smell? What do I need that for?” one of my daughters asked.

“Well, what about for eating? You couldn’t taste your food.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Really? What about fresh-baked cookies? A hamburger on the grill? Chocolate?”

She considered these for a while, said she’d really miss them, but not enough to change her answer. Same with her sister and their friends.

“How about a garden of flowers? The smell of rain? The way your mom smells in a hug? I know you’d miss that one,” I continued. “No? OK, well how about this one. How would you know if you stink?”

We laughed.

“How would we get news or watch TV or find directions?” they asked.

“What if there was a gas leak?” I offered. “If you couldn’t smell it you wouldn’t know there was one and your life would be at risk.”

“If there was a gas leak, how would we know what to do if we couldn’t look it up on the Internet?” one reasoned.

Every question they answered from the perspective of a connected generation. It makes sense. The generation coming up has had everything at their fingertips. They find answers online.

Next I asked my own generation, Generation X. I suspected they would answer like me. Unlike our kids, we lived the first half of our lives “off line.” If you’d even used that term, “on or off line” in the 70s or 80s, people would have thought you were talking about hanging clothes “on the line” or bringing them in—“off the line.” (I’m talking about a clothesline, young people. It’s something we old folks hung wet clothes on to dry before electric dryers became mainstream. Yes, we had dryers, it just wasn’t as common to use them all the time, especially in the summer. Speaking of which, the scent of clothes dried outside on the line is heavenly.)

So I asked some folks who are my age. While we all hesitated for a moment, appreciating all the Internet has brought us, we all said the Internet would go if it meant losing our noses. We would keep them, thank you very much.

Still curious, I posed the question on Facebook and the answers went straight down generational lines. Gen Xers and Boomers chose their noses. The younger generations chose the Internet.

“Although life would really suck without being able to smell anything, I use the internet for almost all of my school and would be lost without internet resources like Khan Academy,” wrote my teenage niece.

“To think, even for one second, about coffee without the smell is horrible,” wrote my brother, who is also the father of the niece quoted above.

“I love keeping up with family and friends 2500 miles away. But, to never smell a daphne, rose or sarcococca? No thanks, I’ll keep my sense of smell and go to the library!” wrote a Gen X classmate.

“Knowing that sense of smell is inextricably linked to memory, and is more than 50% of our perception of taste, I would vote to keep my nose. The joy I get from food and the smells of nature far outweigh the Internet for me,” wrote a Gen X community leader.

I found only one generational exception and that is another niece of mine, who is 17.

“I love food too much to give up my sense of smell,” she said.

I heard she took my question to the halls of her high school and answers were polling 3-to-1 in favor of the Internet. That means she found some more teenagers, like herself, who would choose to keep their sense of smell. So there are exceptions.

How about you? Smell or Internet? Which would you choose?

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