Friday, 8 July 2016

What has the internet ever done for us?

Yeah, yeah - I know... But apart from all that?

If you rewind 25-plus years to the time when public access to the web was emerging, there was a large literature - many books, innumerable articles and speeches - all telling us that that the internet was going to deliver all kinds of things that never happened. Indeed the opposite happened.

In particular, the internet was supposed to (and did) make an unprecedented amount of human knowledge available that had previously been 'locked up' in libraries. The assumption was that the inaccessibility of knowledge had been a significant constraint on human achievement - and once people had the knowledge they needed at the ends of their fingertips, then there would be a Great Leap Forward.

...There would be an economic miracle like that of the industrial revolution or the invention of railways - instant and cost-free information exchange would induce a sharp uptick and continual acceleration of productivity; the stagnant Western economies would expand faster, things would get done faster and more effectively

For example - thanks to the internet, scholarship, research, and especially science would very suddenly and qualitatively be both enhanced and freed. Anybody and everybody would be able to participate at a high level. The status old heirarchy based on knowledge monopolies would dissolve.

People would not need to go to work anymore - but could be more productive staying at home with a terminal. Car usage would decline, roads would be emptied, air pollution would vastly decrease. Business trips would cease. International and national conferences would be made obsolete.  

Residential universities would dwindle down to almost nothing since nearly-all the important things they did could be done online. There would be no need for campuses, halls of residence, tens of thousands of students cramming into overcrowded cities to attend un-necessary and inefficient lectures.

People in general would become much more informed. Having been starved of knowledge since the start of literacy - thanks to the internet they would know more - and more deeply - about everything. Anyone could become an expert on anything in a few hours! A world of instant experts - everywhere!

The mass media could no longer control what people thought about things. Government could no longger get-away-with lying and cover-ups. People would themselves - swiftly and almost effortlessly - find-out and communicate what was really going on.

Legitimate dissent would organize - tyrannies would be unsustainable. 

There would be a vast, seismic, grassroots democratisation of life. People would take-back control. The mega-mass-media corporations would wither and die, large organisations would lose their tyrannical power, fragment and be replaced by small human scale groupings.....

Well, we now have the internet, we have had it for a generation, and it is everywhere; and we now have in abundance almost exactly the opposite of what was predicted in almost every instance. Post internet, life has certainly changed - but is much less like the kind of world the internet pundits said we would have; and overall just more-and-bigger versions of the same things we had before.

The internet has been a triumph of trivial convenience and distraction.

And in particular, the lesson is that the pundits were wrong - humans were not being significantly held-back by the difficulty of access to knowledge and the difficulties of communication.

We now know for sure that the constraints were otherwise: the problem was with the people, not in the information. 

But the good thing is that our excuses have been exploded; and now know that we are to blame. We ignorant, incurious, shallow, passive, and homogeneous commuter-consumers etc. - not because of lack of access to anything better; but because that is what we are