Attack of the killer technophobes

I have been meaning to to write about this column by Marina Hyde in The Guardian, but I wanted to keep some distance from it. While I welcome all sorts of articles that criticise technologies, I have been distraught by certain tone emerging in the supposedly more progressive sectors of the British media outlets, where we are seeing the type of Luddite claptrap exploited by the likes of the Daily Mail.

I have made my feeling about Second Life clear, but I resent those who protest against the entire technology based on a perceived attack on “the human soul” (whatever that is), or similarly fuzzy-sounding clichés. All new technologies are always met with fear by the gatekeepers of the time. I can imagine a hand-written pamphlet from the 1450’s protesting at the disturbing moveable type printing press. The issue is that new technologies are usually neutral, and that the use given to the technology will often be that which reflects the society in which it develops. Virtual worlds are not disturbing per se, the way we use them could be. However, the opposite gushing mindless technophile adoration of all things Second Life should be met with similar scepticism.

I was similarly struck by a sudden urge to throw something at my digital receiver when I heard an interview by Luddite-In-Chief John Humphrys with Vint Cerf on Radio 4’s Today program. It dawned on me that we are seeing a marked resurgence of technophobia in the British media, and that Hyde’s piece is only a symptom of the general malaise. The interview centred around the topic of Internet regulation, and I have to applaud Cerf on masterfully dealing with the creeping paranoia displayed by Humphrys. The interviewer tried to make a point that perhaps Cerf should be feeling a bit responsible by the invention of the Internet, just like some of the scientists working on splitting the atom felt responsible by nuclear weapons (I won’t even comment on the equating of the Internet with WMDs). Cerf’s reply was that the Internet is more analogous to roads. Those who invented roads cannot be in any way held responsible for whatever is built around them. Cerf similarly made the brilliant point that the Internet is just a reflection of society, if we find disturbing things online, should we be concerned about the society that spawns them, or by the medium that distributes them?

I’m still trying to figure out why is it that some in the mainstream media hate Web 2.0 so much. YouTube is presented as the example of everything that is wrong with society, a place where hoodies make their threats, and happy-slappers rule the digital waves. To these people, the Internet as a whole is filled with filth, and “something should be done about it”. Humphrys kept pleading for some form of far-reaching regulation, “where do we draw the line” he asked. The answer according to Cerf was simple. It can be done, it has been done. By China. You may have heard about the Great Firewall of China, right? That is one way of doing it. If you want to regulate the Internet, that is the only model that really works.

Vint Cerf is now one of my heroes.

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