Underestimating the internet
While Joe Carter and I decide how to proceed with the debate in a more specific and purposeful manner than I’ve provided for thus far, I’d like to bring attention to this Newsweek article from 1995 in which a scientist and early internet user named Clifford Stoll manages to get the next decade and a half not just kind of wrong, but entirely wrong. Consider the following:
Consider today’s online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.
What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is tht the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them—one’s a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn’t work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.”
The article includes a number of other retrospective gems, but this portion in particular struck me for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, here we are reading this article through the internet rather than the “friendly pages” of a rather mediocre magazine. More interesting is the error Stoll makes in shooting down what have turned out to be accurate predictions for the future by reference to the state of the internet as it was at that point. This is a peculiar mistake for anyone to make, much less someone who had at that point been using the evolving online framework for two decades during which it had evolved and multiplied in capabilities, as Stoll had. The problems of information glut he pointed to in 1995 were hardly intractable, and a number of individuals were already working to solve the problem. Just now it took me eight seconds to find the elusive date of the Battle of Trafalgar – and thanks to one of the latest developments provided by Google, I did not even have to type in the entirety of the word “Trafalgar” before its algorithms had determined my likely intent and displayed the results by way of some esoteric ranking system that brought a Wikipedia entry to the top. Nor did I even have to click on the entry to get the date, which was displayed in the preview portion.
This failure to take into account the amplification of utility offered by the internet is still routinely employed by its detractors even after a decade of developments that really ought to have shut most of them up. Note that Stoll here goes after Nicholas Negroponte on the latter’s allegedly wacky prediction that people might soon buy books and newspapers online. Fifteen years later, people are still going after Negroponte – many of them writers and authors whose work may be found online, who submit to their editors online, and use Google to do research online – and they often make such attacks by reference to the very same failure to notice that the internet is not a stable entity but rather an incredibly dynamic and ever-shifting composite that tackles problems with such speed and variety that the very solving of these problems often goes unnoticed.
A few months back, Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov took on internet boosterism in general and promises that a wired world will prove dangerous to tyranny in particular. Of course, Nicholas Negroponte is again assailed, weirdly enough for having made predictions that have already come to pass to the extent that words have meaning. I recently fisked Morozov’s article in my column for Skeptical Inquirer, the editor of which has been so good as to allow me to expand the definition of skepticism to include the attacking of my ever-increasing number of enemies:
Morozov does cite one actual claim made long ago by the pro-Internet crowd, here quoting the 1994 manifesto “A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” which, as he notes, promised the advent of “electronic neighborhoods bound together not by geography but by shared interests.” This is an odd claim to cite as representative of unfulfilled hopes, considering that it appears to have been fulfilled if we observe that we do indeed now have online communities made up of people “bound together not by geography but by shared interests,” including blogs such as Daily Kos, user-driven discussion sites such as Reddit, and thousands of other such things. If Morozov has a different definition in mind, he has kept it secret from us.
Incidentally, this marks one of the two occasions in the entire article on which Morozov bothers to quote any of the assertions he ascribes to his opponents, and on neither occasion are we treated to anything so bulky as an entire sentence-but then print magazines are subject to space constraints. Limited by his medium, Morozov is forced to continue here by merely summarizing an assertion by Nicholas Negroponte, who “dramatically predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations and usher in a new era of world peace” or at any rate stated something approximate to that.
Whatever Negroponte said in 1997, it was apparently wrong. “The Internet as we know it has now been around for two decades,” Morozov reminds us, “and it has certainly been transformative.… But just as earlier generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most ardent cheerleaders, we haven’t seen an Internet-powered rise in global peace, love, and liberty.” I wouldn’t know how to measure the degree of global love, much less to what extent one should attribute any change in such a thing to the Internet. This puts me at a disadvantage when dealing with Morozov, who seems to have had a head start on this, so I will concede the point, which he hammers home by noting that the Internet has facilitated “the increased global commerce in protected species.” Meanwhile, a group of Serbians have been “turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights” while a group of Saudi Arabians are supposed to be setting up some sort of online version of their Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice squad. All in all, “Many of the transnational networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen-rather than improve-the world as we know it.” Why this necessarily leads to the conclusion that the Internet has not been a force for good is left unaddressed.
As I concluded then, the arguments against some or another supposed future capability of the internet tend to ignore what should be evident about the speed and efficiency by which those capabilities tend to develop, focusing instead on the state of the internet as it exists at a certain point in time.
The Internet has not proven itself to be some surefire weapon against tyranny or injustice or bad taste, but the same can be said for the written word and, really, everything else. But aside from being wrong, arguments to the effect that the last decade has shown the Internet to be a failure as a tool of political change are almost beside the point if our intent is to better understand what the Internet will look like in the future. Had Morozov written a similar essay ten years ago, he would have been arguing against the revolutionary efficacy of a landscape that is drastically different from what we see today-one in which Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were as yet unknown. Ten years from now, new and entirely different tools will be in use, and existing tools will be used in different ways. The Internet will continue in its rapid evolution; the world in turn will be tugged along in the wake of its influence, and the means of human collaboration will continue to multiply just as they have for the last decade and a half-which is to say, orders of magnitude faster than ever before in human history in an environment of fast-increasing social complexity. We have barely received a taste of the phenomena with which we and our very dictators will be confronted in the coming years.
Also, people need to stop fucking with Nicholas Negroponte.