Turns out, the Internet is no big “world improvement machine”

Data Center

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.

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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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This article can also be read in German.
Photo: Flickr/Sean Ellis, CC BY 2.0

One comment

  1. While I would agree with the main message of the article that the Internet has both positive and negative impacts on the humans and is a kind of accelerator of both. To the latter I would add all kind of criminality in the internet and especially the spread of criminal pornography with real life human victims but to the former for example the easyness of charityefforts via the web. Without being a pessimist there are still some things where we can`t even assess the possible effects of things going on (is the omnipresent wifi radiation healthy for example? Studies already show that it can decrease sperm count in men).

    But I would like to point out at the political components of the article. The Author wrote that the actual use of the internet goes against the goals of the original proponents of the internet to have “a more open, more democratic, more prosperous, more knowledgeable, more equal world.” First of all I dont´t know what the original goals were (I heard that the US Military invented parts of the internet during the Vietnam to coordinate its war efforts better) but even assuming these were their goals, it is still a certain political direction and I personally miss the aspect of freedom in it. More democratic for example includes Brexit, Trump, and Right-wing-populism because it is part of democracy that there can be results that not everyone is happy with. No one would say anything against more knowledgable or more prosperous but more open and especially more equal are goals that are legitimate political goals but they belong to a certain political direction (left-leaning liberalism or even socialism) . Even when the original inventors had these views and everyone should thank them I personally still don`t think the internet should be seen as machine for a certain political direction. And the goal of equaliy itself which is cherished by left-wing parties over the globe is in my opinion a very problematic if not even dangerous goal. It is the promise of socialism and since the french revolution has been proven over and over again not only as hardly achievable (even in systems which claim to value equality new inequalities arise or like George Orwell said in the Animal Farm: Some people are “more equal”) but if it was put into place usuallly through extreme brutal methods (Jacobins, Sovietunion, Pol Pot, Mao,…)with high counts of killings and human suffering worse than everything else. Usually socialist systems have been proven to be less competitive than non-socialist systems and collapsed over time. And nominally socialist countries like China or Vietnam or Israeli kibbuzim changed after a while to capitalist (and thus uneqal systems to strive). The problem is for example when there is an exam in a school for example and everyone gets the same mark no matter if he prepared well or not, it will stiffle motivation of those who want to strive and perform well because they would get the same mark if they wouldn`t prepare at all. Being good or better in something has no advantage anymore because it doesn`t pay off. Mediocricy, lowest common denominator and conformity pressure follow. Innovation, and enterpreneuer spirit can`t develop. Competition, freedom and excellence are not valued and cannot be because they contradict the whole idea of equality. While this is only my opinion but I think it is a dangerous goal which is also morally controversial (a lot of people think of equality as “fair” but is the equality of the unequal fair? (If the lazy man and the hard working get both the same pay for example) I personally don`t think so.

    But even milder forms like social democratic governments whose “only” goal is to redistribute wealth (which is also an obejectabkle goal in my opionon) can get these effecs on a smaller scale (Gerald Depardieu simply doesn`t want to pay 70% income tax so he leaves his homeland))


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