What has the Internet ever done for us?

Besides email, blogs, instant messaging, social media, ecommerce and apps, what has the Internet ever done for us?

People who have met me in real life know that most of the time I’m a patient and easy-going kind of guy (despite rumours to the contrary, I do exist outside of the virtual realms). My usually mild disposition is only broken by few things in life: inappropriate use of apostrophes, cruelty to cats, lawmakers trying to legislate technology they’ve never used and do not understand, and Michael Bay films. Just to name a few.

There is another thing that initiates anger that makes the Y U NO guy look like an advertisement for a Buddhist retreat. There is a growing trend of technology writing that is at its heart mildly technophobic, or that begins with the assumption that things are not fine, and that all of this technology is bad for us, for our brains, and for our souls. I admit that there are some writers who seem to be simply trolling, and these are, sadly, the ones that anger me the most, thus proving that trolling works as intended (Andrew Keen, Jonathan Franzen and Evgeny Morozov, I’m looking at you). There is another category, and those are the people who either should know better (take a bow Jaron Lanier), or that are well-intentioned but are simply mistaken (Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is a good example).

I recently read an article in Open Democracy entitled “Why has the Internet changed so little“, and I cannot honestly see if we are being trolled, or if the author truly believes this. In the article the author builds a straw man and the proceeds to knock it down. The article begins:

“In the 1990s, leading experts, politicians, public officials, business leaders and journalists predicted that the internet would transform the world.  The internet would revolutionise the organisation of business, and lead to a surge of prosperity. It would inaugurate a new era of cultural democracy in which sovereign users – later dubbed ‘prosumers‘ – would call the shots, and the old media leviathans would decay and die. It would rejuvenate democracy – in some versions by enabling direct e-government through popular referendums. All over the world, the weak and marginal would be empowered, leading to the fall of autocrats and the reordering of power relations. More generally, the global medium of the internet would shrink the universe, promote dialogue between nations, and foster global understanding. In brief, the internet would be an unstoppable force: like the invention of print and gunpowder, it would change society permanently and irrevocably.”

I seriously dislike the rhetorical trick that says “they were too optimistic, now here is what really happened”. It is true that I read some over-optimistic claptrap in the 90s, but with few exceptions, I cannot think of this being the mainstream. The problem with the above is that the article rests on the assumption that the utopian straw man really existed, and that reality has failed to live up to that ideal. But if this utopia was never the norm, then the entire edifice falls down.The author cites several examples of authors who wrote over-optimistic pieces about technology, but with the exception of Yochai Benkler, I do not recognize them. If even an avid reader of technology has not read these opinions, does the author have a case then that these views were prevalent?

Let us assume that the initial argument is correct, and that some utopian ideas were and still are prevalent. The entire argument still seems to be distilled to the fact that in some fundamental ways, the world is the same as it was 20 years ago. People are still separated by class, race and language online. There are still dictators and bad governments. News sources haven’t collapsed. We are not all billionaires. In other words, the Internet has not lived up to my over-blown expectations, so it has not done anything else.

I was going to attempt to construct a detailed rebuttal point by point of each claim made in the article, but these arguments still rest almost entirely on the assumption that the original optimistic opinion somehow reflected the mainstream opinion, which is by far the case. I will try to examine some of these claims individually:

Global understanding

During the 1990s, there was a broad consensus that the internet would promote greater global understanding.” This is perhaps the strongest claim made in the piece, and the one I disagree with the most. The evidence for this consensus? The words of Republican politician Vern Ehlers, the writings of one Harley Hahn (“the best-selling
Internet author of all time”), and Natasha Bulashova & Greg Cole, creators of the site Friends & Partners. This is no consensus, this seems like trying to pick the outliers, the extreme opinions, and painting them as the norm.

The reality is that while there has been some over-enthusiastic commentary, most people in the mainstream have been guarded about this aspect of the Internet. I would even claim that the opposite is true, growing number of writers have been of the opinion that there are phenomena like online ghettoization, online polarization, filter bubbles, and similar problems. Heck, Sunstein wrote about it in 2001, and there has been a lively debate ever since! Similarly, the more we learn about online communities, the more we discover that people tend to group along similar lines as they do offline (see this study on the geography of Twitter connections).

The question is, how would we expect this to be any different? I have nothing in common with an average person living in China, how could I possibly connect with them? The real advance made by the Internet is that it makes it easier to connect with people we already know. Similarly, for a few select people, the Internet does allow us to make global connections, as my Twitter following list and this blog’s readership can attest to. There is indeed a growing global community coalescing online, but it is highly selective.

Journalism Renaissance
This is the section that I would agree with the most, but once again I disagree with some of the straw men characterizations being made. Citing Rupert Murdoch when talking about journalism seems wrong somehow, not only because of his offences against that profession (if you believe that he didn’t know about phone hacking, I have a nice bridge that you may like), but also because he had an economic interest in social media when he purchased (and destroyed) MySpace.

I have read Yochai Benkler’s views on peer-production, and I cannot see anything where he has been wrong about what is happening at the moment. Despite the author’s protestations to the contrary, there really is a revolution in journalism caused by the Internet. The fact that the article is published in Open Democracy (not a mainstream media site), and that I found it when someone cited it on Twitter (an aggregator service if there ever was one), should hint that there is something big going on. Newspapers will not disappear, those which adapt will survive and thrive. But there is a clear change in the plurality of sources and voices. Ignore the blogosphere at your peril.

Economic Transformation

Didn’t you know that we were going to be billionaires? It is as much news to me as it is to you. The article states:

“Between 1995 and 2000, it was widely claimed that the internet would generate wealth and prosperity for all. Typifying this prediction was a long article in Wired, the bible of the American internet community, written by the magazine’s editor, Kevin Kelly in 1999. Its title and lead-in set the article’s tone: ‘The Roaring Zeros: The good news is, you’ll be a millionaire soon. The bad news is, so will everybody else’. “

I like Wired, but they are often wrong (sometimes spectacularly wrong), and will often be the first to admit it. Ignoring the Wired prediction, this section rests on the promise of the New Economy, and again relies on straw men arguments, namely, that somehow the Internet would have a larger share of the economy than it really has.

Take the statement that “the internet does not represent a complete rupture with the past since it was preceded by the widespread corporate use of computers”. What is that supposed to mean? That because there were non-networked computers before performing economic transactions, that somehow we should ignore what has happened afterwards? Similarly, we are told that “the internet has not proved to be a geyser of wealth cascading down on investors and the general public”. Trickle-down economics is not exclusive of Internet ideologues.

This section seems intent on minimising the role of the Internet in everyday economic life, “the internet has not, so far, revolutionised shopping”. I couldn’t disagree more, online shopping has been growing every year, but this is not the heart of the relevance of electronic commerce. The Internet has changed shopping significantly because it allows people to browse, compare, read reviews, read user experiences, watch product videos, and even to experience unboxing porn. To deny this element in the new consumer economy ignores the relevance of online businesses for the economy.

Concluding

When I was still teaching, I used to tell my students that they should never begin their essays with the words “The Internet Has Changed Everything”. This sort of lazy thinking seemed prevalent in some essays around 2002-2006. The Internet has NOT changed everything, but its role in our lives is hard to deny. I cannot use myself as an example, as I’m a clear technophile gadget-freak, but the Internet plays a very important part of my everyday life, from entertainment to business. It has not changed the world completely, but whoever expected it to was delusional.

4 thoughts on “What has the Internet ever done for us?

  1. "When I was teaching, I used to tell my students that they should never begin their essays with the words “The Internet Has Changed Everything”. This sort of lazy thinking seemed prevalent in some essays around 2002-2006. "

    It still is, dear, take it from me. It still is…

  2. You really are "a patient and easy-going kind of guy". Sometimes when I read that kind of articles I really think about writing something as a reaction but I cannot manage my anger. So, thanks for writing this.

Leave a Reply