This year the World Wide Web celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Internet as underlying technological platform is about twice as old. Compared to a human life that’s a significant amount. But compared to the historic existence of humanity and to other groundbreaking inventions of the past, the Internet (and the web) are still green behind the ears.
In consequence, any prediction and analysis about the Internet’s short, mid and long term impact on life and people is flawed and inevitably incomplete. The insane complexity that is being added to the world through global connectivity requires a level of systems thinking which no one is capable of. Generally, it’s only in hindsight that a technology’s importance and implications can objectively be assessed. Today, we know very well how the printing press, electricity and the railway have changed the world. When it comes to the Internet, there cannot be any hindsight yet, since it is still so young. Basically, everyone is totally clueless.
However, with each year that passes, the number of data points and information bits about the Internet’s effects on society and humanity is growing. While no one has the full picture yet, this year something is getting more obvious than ever before: The Internet is increasingly being utilized for goals contrary to what its proponents initially hoped for, which would be a more open, more democratic, more prosperous, more knowledgeable, more equal world.
For many significant events and trends of 2016, the Internet and the phenomenon and behaviours it enables and encourages play a major role: Think Brexit, Donald Trump, right-wing populism, Islamic terrorism, conspiracy theories, harassment and the spreading of hate, data theft and hacking attacks (commercially and politically motivated), censorship, disinformation, fake news, mass surveillance, filter bubbles, political and ideological polarization, wealth inequality, concentration of economical power.
The key fact to keep in mind is of course that the Internet, like any technology, is neutral. It all depends on how people use a technology. And this is my point: Occasionally – and increasingly often – I am wondering about whether humanity actually is ready for the Internet. Humanity, not humans. Notice the difference. Most individuals are quite ready for the Internet (even though they might struggle with its addictive and distracting nature) and they quickly discover how they can utilize the Internet to reach their goals.
The Internet, through is unique combination of access to information and access to people, is very effective for accomplishing goals. That unfortunately also is valid for goals which would be considered undesirable by most reasonable people. The Internet is the perfect tool to initiate change – both positive change and negative change. Until recently, we have mostly only seen the positive change (except if you are part of the entertainment industry, in which case you would have complained about piracy). But a few decades into the Internet’s evolution, we are confronted with the other, ugly side of the coin. If bots can successfully influence the result of a major referendum such as the one about the Brexit, that’s critical.
It would be wrong to conclude that this is the “real” truth: That the Internet actually turns out not to be a boon for humanity at all. As I wrote in the beginning: It’s too early for a verdict. Everyone lacks the objective perspective. We don’t see what’s going to happen next, so we only see a snapshot (and the short history with its deceptive “good old days” charm). Like the person in the eye of a Tornado. Only those outside could make a proper evaluation of the dimensions of the whole thing.
But it is time to acknowledge the fact that the Internet as a groundbreaking, world-changing technological milestone has been put into people’s hands without any guarantees that it will be used responsibly; the Internet, it turns out, is not a big world improvement machine. It just makes everything that always happened in the world faster, more extreme, and more effective. It might lead us into utopia or dystopia.
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