There are a lot of threats to society as we know it, some more worrisome than others. Were I to draw a list, I would include things like climate change, political apathy, racism, xenophobia, and social disengagement, just to name a few. Nonetheless, I try not to worry too much, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. But if you start reading the broadsheet papers in the UK, you would start thinking that one of the biggest threats to society is the Internet. Not cybercrime, not spam, not cyber-terrorism, not hacking, not P2P; the Internet as an ideal is under fire as never before.
The tabloids have always hated the internet; the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun have always thrived on the sort of cheap scaremongering technophobia that is wont to depict the Internet as the realm of dangerous cyber-stalkers where no civilised person would dare to go. Many of us had grown accustomed to the lazy rhetoric spouted by the tabloids, as your typical Daily Mail reader is perennially in a state of befuddled rage at modernity that can only be dangerous when materialised in the ballot box. However, the so-called informed press have joined the technophobe train with the fury and self-righteous enthusiasm of the newly converted. With talk of newspapers going out of print, many journalists have decided to lash out at what they feel is the cause of all of their troubles. The blame does not lie in the crumbling financial system, nor does it lie in the reduction in advertising, nor can it be blamed on a failing business model. It is the Internet’s fault, hear them roar.
There are a growing number of examples, but I will highlight only two of them. Peter Preston published a laughably angry rant against the Web last week, filled with diabolically misinformed and plain silly ideas of just how evil the Internet is. Take this paragraph.
“For the net we work on, the digital connections our government seeks to spread as a universal right, the keyboards in our homes, are blights as well as boons. We won’t automatically be better with no books to finger and caress. We aren’t better for grisly YouTube grimaces from Downing Street, or Obama twittering away when he could be thinking. Before there were computer disks to steal from the fees office, there was privacy, secrecy and supposed decency undisturbed. Before there was email, there was no Damian McBride hawking his poison from screen to screen. And it becomes increasingly necessary to weigh the revolution that has changed all our lives on an updated set of moral scales.”
Consider the implications of what Preston is telling us. Apparently, spin doctors and political misinformation did not exist before YouTube. Political intrigue and the use of dirty tricks did not exist before email either. And apparently it is not possible to think while one is twittering. What can I say about such binary view of technology? Preston and many other of these New Luddites are attacking a caricature of the Internet as an environment that steals the human soul.
A better written article can be found today in The Times on Sunday, yet it is still dumbfounding and peculiarly misinformed. Bryan Appleyard asks us to break free of the worldwide delusion, namely the World Wide Web. Appleyard’s problem, as many of these articles, is that it is using the tried and tested logical fallacy of setting up a strawman and then knocking it down. In a very telling paragraph, he comments that:
“One great promise of web 2.0 was that it would lead to a post-industrial world in which everything was dematerialised into a shimmer of electrons. But last year’s oil price shock and this year’s recession, not to mention every year’s looming eco-catastrophe, show that we are still utterly dependent on the heavy things of the old economy. In fact, says Edgerton, we may, in retrospect, come to see coal as the dominant technology of our time. China and America have lots of the stuff and they plan to burn it. The web, like it or not, uses energy, quite a lot of it, and that will continue to be made with big, heavy, industrial-age machines.”
I do not know anyone who believes that Web 2.0 will lead to a post-industrial world. True, there are concerns about the exponential growth of the Internet and its potential energy impact, but this is a concern that fails to see that there is growing substitution of media taking place. We are currently witnessing the birth of a generation that is growing up without TV as we know it, and consumer-side energy consumption while surfing the web is still not as high as that spent on TV consumption. With servers becoming smaller and more efficient, the Internet offers a viable alternative for media delivery that is energy-friendly. Not to mention the potential substitution of the inefficient tree-killing pulp-based information delivery vehicle known as the printed newspaper.
This brings me to the second strawman in Appleyard’s piece. He attacks Web 2.0 as completely individualistic enterprise that cannot substitute “publishers, newspapers, museums, universities, schools”. Once again, I have never met anyone who has suggested that it does. On the contrary, the tools perfectly co-exist with social institutions to make their reach more relevant, and the technologies also empower the user to participate in the exchange of information. Thirdly, Appleyard simply does not get that just because Oprah and Stephen Fry are on Twitter, they do not constitute the Twittersphere. The technology is much richer and engaging than that.
I am not surprised that Appleyard cites Andrew Keen, yet another technophobe troll. In fact, he relishes the idea that he is a troll. He says:
“The cult is the problem. I know that this article — it always happens — will be sneered at all over the web by people who cannot think for themselves because they are blindly faithful to the idea that the web is the future, all of it. I will be called a Luddite.
You are being called a Luddite because you ARE a Luddite. The Internet is a communication tool, it is not better or worse than we are; it reflects our innermost ugliness, laziness, anger and faults. As a technology it also has great potential, it helps us to unleash our creativity, it offers opportunities that are being actualised by people with a bit more imagination than the technophobes. It seems like the new breed of people attacking the Internet have one thing in common, they yearn for the top-down approach where users remained silent while they were able to pontificate and give us ready-made opinions. They hate social engagement while protesting that the Web is killing society.
Thankfully, my own prediction is that the New Luddites will be laughed at as much as we laugh at those who indicted the advent of the printing press, the television, the telephone, and any other communication tool ever invented.