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


  1. Well in that case I must be atypical because I use it exactly the way it was anticipated to be of value: I stay up late at night watching lectured and tutorials on anything ranging from Spanish language tutorials, Music theory and practical guitar instructional videos, university lectures from around the world on subjects ranging from Astronomy to Zoology and still find time to read your blog. My major problem is that I tend to forget the things I try to learn quite quickly. I sometimes feel that if my memory were substantially better I might be dangerous haha Incidentally, do you know of any proven or effective memory enhancement strategies other than the usual self-help books?

    But yes, your post is very much an accurate assessment of what has happened. It is profoundly disappointing isn't it?! It is a tragedy really that a species that has so much potential to solve group problems ends up becoming enslaved by the technology that was ironically innovated to emancipate us! But a hammer can be used to build a fine house or to bludgeon another person on the head and steal their house and resources. Tools are still just tools. We just dont have a critical mass of like-minded effective users of the tools we have invented/discovered.

  2. I totally agree Bruce. Personally, I believe the internet has enhanced my life because of my introverted nature and the good connections I have made to people who share my values. Having some of the information in a convenient way has also opened me to new ways in seeing the world and to deepen my understanding in other ways. Nevertheless, I do find the impersonal nature of it to be dehumanizing and there are way too many useless distractions that we can all be tempted by. I also believe culturally it has diminished the way we relate to each other in the world, and probably has brought out the worse in us.

  3. I am reminded of the Aristotelian aspiration to 'otium': but who will do what with that otium? Cf. Milton's sonnet, "I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs".

    I am delighted to have access to all sorts of out-of-copyright books via, e.g., the Internet Archive - it's like having a fair chunk of the Bodleian or another great library at one's fingertips - yet, frustratingly, only a chunk, as internet is also so considerably poised upon inaccessible works in copyright from which works online derive and to which they point.

    It is also dangerously attractive for those who are letters-to-the-editor-minded to have so many interesting places to comment frequently and at length!

    David Llewellyn Dodds

  4. It is quite true!

    I think nerdy introverted types (aspergers?) often have trouble with theory-of-mind and realizing that what they need isn't what everyone needs.

    Related ideas were that Linux and Open Source software would make everyone a software developer, or people would all customize and tweak their Operating Systems (really! lol). Also initiatives/ideas like "one laptop per child" would transform poor nations overnight...

    Or on a grand/public scale, just send everyone to University, and everyone can be smart and have high-paying white collar jobs, and well... onward Utopia!

    It is perhaps easy to mock in retrospect, and these things are still going on, but I guess people moved their faith from religion to technology and perhaps were well-intended (at least, I think the self-deception was genuine for a lot of people, grew-up on Star Trek, etc.).

  5. It's all about the types of people in the end.

  6. I am sympathetic to your perspective and even agree with it as a diagnosis for where we are today. But it really hasn't been very long at all - the technology has been built out, but people are very slow to adapt to changing conditions and to make the most of new possibilities. Beyond that, sometimes things in life only happen when the time is right, rather than when a billiard ball conception of causality would suggest that they should.

    So ultimately things will get much, much better. But the only way that can happen is they get much worse first - and 2017-2020 will be tough. That's just how things unfold.

    India and Africa have indeed been transformed by mobile and Internet, and that process is just beginning. Cheap open-source machine tools will be the next phase, I think.

  7. Nicholas Fulford10 July 2016 at 15:53

    The Internet is a projection of human behaviour; how could it be otherwise?

    Hence we see the best and the worst - amplified and intensified.

    For me, the Internet has been a boon. It does enable me to work from home on occasion due to VPN connections. I enjoy being able to put some of my ideas up for public review and consideration, and I do like being able to research those things in which I have an interest. It provides a tool to jump and link between ideas quickly. I recently read an article about the composer Benjamin Britten and then found a beautiful performance of his violin concerto on YouTube by Janeen Jansen. (See - ) It has the capacity to expand the reach of my curiosity quickly, to stimulate my thinking, as well as provide connections with people with whom I would likely never have met in any other way. Yes there is spam, porn, gambling and spamming, but these are avoidable or at least ignorable. I also appreciate being able to purchase airline tickets, concert tickets, museum tickets, and make restaurant reservations with ease.

    For me it has been a boon.

  8. Good points, all. Persoanlly, I like using iTunes to download classroom lectures, interviews and podcasts covering a variety of topics like history, art, linguistics, current events, etc.
    "The more I learn, the more I realise what I have yet to learn."