Thursday 15 December 2011

What has the internet ever done for us?


One word: distraction.


The internet was supposed to be revolutionary: the internet was supposed to deliver (among many other benefits):

Economic growth - a massive boost to economic efficiency.

Reduced travelling - as information was exchanged online - so massive reduction in road, rail and air usage, home working replacing offices and factories etc.

A better informed population, less subject to propaganda and manipulation by the mass media; free self-education replacing physical attendance at schools and colleges, a quantum leap in science and scholarship.


All these and more the internet has failed to deliver. It hasn't even delivered a plateau.

IF there were any such effects, they have been swallowed-up by much larger trends in the opposite direction.

Okay, there are lots of conveniences - but it really is stunning how anything so big, so pervasive, so time-consuming could yield up so very, very little.


The internet: all means, no end - all process, no product.


So the net effect of the internet, overall and on-average, has been:

More of the same stuff.



Hiber said...

The internet is indeed mostly a means of distraction.

I can see very little benefit which has come from the "Net", excepting free media, though this free media seems only to be seen by a tiny minority of people and so for all its consequences may as well not exist.

dearieme said...

Mankind has an infinite capacity for consuming entertainment.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - whether strictly infinite, it seems we are nowhere near the saturation point yet...

GFC said...

This is so true (as I write, distracted by the internet). When I entered the work force, the only computers we had we clunky old green screen machines that weren't network, and functioned for us essentially as typewriters. There was no email, no power point, no internet. Yet, the work got done - not only did it get done, but we got more of it done and spent our time focussed on the essentials of our jobs. In the intervening years, we expend more effort and seem more hurried and breathless, but get less of any significance done. This is not just the internet, but email and other technologies.

In the office, it's a paradox: all of these tools that make individual tasks easier, whether writing documents, preparing correspondence, sending messages, have made the enterprise as a whole vastly less efficient and less effective. I'm really at a loss to explain why, but I'd go back to how things were, in a heartbeat, even if it meant losing also the good sides of the internet, such as blogs like this one.

Cantillonblog said...

The benefits of the internet have been stunning... for those who live in more provincial locations or in poorer countries with worse intellectual infrastructure. For the exceptionally well-read intellectual in London or Newscastle who was already surrounded by smart people and enmeshed in networks of tacit knowledge, perhaps the benefits so far have been more mixed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Cantillonblog - yes, I know that some people have been given pleasure, but can you point to *actual* NET benefits of an important kind?

I should have added to my post that *of course* there have been specific local benefits to the internet, which have about as much net significance as counter-current eddies swirling around a rock in the Colorado river ...

cantillonblog said...

What is to count as a benefit? The possibilities you discuss - stronger economic growth, a better informed population, and a greater division of labour permitted by distance working (not quite what you said) - have come to fruition strongly, but more notably in the emerging world - India, Africa, Estonia. These changes have often necessitated significant adjustments - many of them painful - in the West. But it seems to me hard to argue for example that access by Indians and Africans to lectures from MIT is not a significant net benefit. One can see the move towards greater social organization and away from the old corruption unfolding before one's eyes in India.

JMSmith said...

At yesterday's faculty meeting, we were informed that efforts were underway to produce pamphlets and posters to lure, or rather recruit, students into our courses and programs. This comes after a decade of heavy investment in a handsome and detailed website that, apparently, no one will visit if not directed there by a pamphlet, poster, or sidewalk shill. At the same meeting, the graduate representative complained that there was widespread confusion among the graduate students with respect to certain department policies. Needless to say, these are all spelled out with lawyerly precision on our sadly neglected website. One final academic example. Students are, of course, prone to mislay the course syllabus that is passed out at the beginning of the semester, and so to loose track of grading policy, examination dates, professor's phone number, name of the course, and what not. So a PDF of every course syllabus is now posted in two places on line, with no appreciable diminution of clueless student questions. The great technological advance is that clueless student questions now flood in by e-mail.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Cantillonblog - "it seems to me hard to argue for example that access by Indians and Africans to lectures from MIT is not a significant net benefit."

But that is precisely what I do argue.

That is one of the theoretical benefits of the internet I read about 15-20 years ago - but I don't see any real world consequences. Demand for MIT places went up, college fees went up, objective standards in math etc went down.

If these benefits were real, there would be no need to make theoretical arguments about them.

When the railways opened up the mid-West of the USA, corn prices plummeted in England, bread became cheap, and farming was reconfigured. If the internet had made a difference like the railways and steamships, this could not be hidden, there would be no arguments about it.

tenkev said...

I think you miss an important benefit.

The internet has allowed more access to alternate that mainstream viewpoints and has lessened Moldbug's Cathedral's influence over the minds of the masses.

If not for the Internet, I might not have become convinced to com back home to the Holy Mother Church.

Steve Nicoloso said...

The internet led us to you, Dr. Charlton.

Alas, the internet has led me to waste a lot of time, view much that I shouldn't have, some of which I might not have guessed existed... and which perhaps might not, but for the internet.

But the internet also led me to the Roman Catholic Church, which probably saved my marriage (or at least made it a lot more pleasant), to an authentic and thoughtful conservatism, to understand far better the underpinnings of that which ails modernity.

On the whole, a net plus, for me. For the world as a whole? Maybe not so much.

Anonymous said...

Not only it failed to deliver those promises, its negative social effects are quite extreme. It has produced an entire sub-class of people with crippling social anxieties, incapable of relating with others face-to-face; it has created an atmosphere of anarchy in matters of free speech and governance and it boosted the proliferation of vices like pornography, sexual perversion and substance abuse.

If anything, the Internet has just made modernity go faster. At a rate that we won't be able to handle.

Cantillonblog said...

Bruce - I challenge you to dip into and read parts of the Indian newspaper archives over the past decade and not think the net has had a very real, and mostly positive effect on most aspects of life at all levels of society. I think the same is true of many countries in SE Asia and Africa + Middle East, but the effect is not confined to these societies. One wouldn't really notice it unless one reads foreign media or travels a lot.

One can also see these days that the general level of refinement (in certain respects) in previously provincial areas is very much higher than before.

Re MIT the point is the impact of access to knowledge on local societies (lectures are given away for free, whether or not you are enrolled and pay tuition), not the impact on MIT itself. Closer to home, wouldn't you say the introduction of Google Books and similar services is rather positive for reactionaries?

No doubt this process of broadening of access to culture and know-how is in the West in many cases offset by ongoing societal decline. And it's impossible to assess objectively whether one should consider that outcome net positive. But viewed from the slums of Calcutta, the net has improved life - in moral respects as well as material ones.

More generally, even in the west we've barely had broadband everywhere for a decade. And if technology can be rolled out quickly, it is not so surprising that it takes tradition and social organization a bit longer to catch up. And of course the process of mutual adjustments set in motion might actually take decades, if not centuries to fully unfold. Such unfolding is likely to take place in wave-like progression, with periods of consolidation and retrenchment following periods of growth.

Victor said...

I agree that the economic returns have been disappointing but it is too soon to give a verdict, we should wait until...say 2025 to know weather or not the internet is a total failure.

According to Jaron Lanier this happened because we lost "provenance",a concept
imagined by Ted Nelson.See this video for more details i highly recommend.

One of Jaron's criticisms is that we overestimate the positive impact it has in our lives because the services the internet provides for free end up taking more of our future income than we save with these services.

I also agree that the internet did not boost science but it made the scientific literature more accessible through huge repositories and databases e.g. jstor,arxiv,ihop etc.

Catherine said...

The internet has allowed more access to alternate that mainstream viewpoints and has lessened Moldbug's Cathedral's influence over the minds of the masses.

Agree completely. The other day (as a deliberate method of distraction, I admit; I was doing something quite unpleasant) I put on a Youtube video that turned out to be an old '60 minutes' documentary about Mt. Athos. While I was watching it, I got this weird, eerie feeling. The 60 minutes crew was picking and choosing their questions to the monks, picking and choosing which answers they edited in, filling the wide-angle shots with bland uninterested American voiceovers....

It hit me: what was creeping me out was the reminder that just a decade or two ago, *this* is where most people would have got their general information from. You sat down for your serving of Mt Athos knowledge graciously offered up in a package by your betters, professional journalists who really didn't give a crap about the subject except to make sure they did not "offend" anyone by actually saying anything interesting.

Sure, there were books! But even they had several levels of gatekeepers to get through before they got to the average person. Who publishes them, which library/store orders them in, do you happen to have access to that particular library/store, will it cost you a lot of money... How many people actually got to that stage, compared to the number who can type "Mt Athos" on a screen?

Nothing else about the Internet (positive or negative) can hold a candle to the effect this has had in my life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Catherine - These effects are real but are merely eddies around the rock - the vast main current is going in the opposite direction - or else Good-subversive mass media, political correctness and liberalism would all be in retreat and Christianity surging ascendant; which is obviously NOT the case.

nk said...

All in all the effect of the internet is distracting but ....

without it a lot of thoughts and ideas - especially ideas like yours - wouldn't have come to my attention.

The alternatives that tenkey and Catherine mentioned are precious and very important - at least for some of their readers and for me personally.

The internet is the best chance to build up knowledge despite the corruption of the institutions.

This chance may not be used very much but hey : the curch started with 12 apostles, didn't it ? Numbers are not decisive.

Bruce Charlton said...

@nk - All true - but I think that 'Orthosphere' bloggers and commenters are prone to forget that - insofar as we are doing any good - it is against the current; at most we are turning to *some* benefit a thing which is mostly harmful.

The internet is merely part of the mass media and communications which enable the psychotic irrationality, distraction and blunted indifference to reality that enable and sustain extreme anti-Christian Leftism and nihilism.

Without the internet and mass media, we would not *need* the Orthosphere!

The internet - along with the rest of the mass media - is something that would (obviously!) need to *go* (almost entirely) if there was ever to be repentance and a Christian re-awakening. So let's not get attached to it!

JP said...

You may have seen studies that internet use alters the brain structure and makes concentration more difficult. This is much the same effect as television but even more pronounced.

The benefit, in my view, is that people can read a whole world of newspapers without leaving the house. The perspective on US events provided by UK newspapers is quite valuable. One is no longer dependent on the news and opinions furnished by local papers and TV stations. One can also see, from reading comments attached to stories and opinion pieces in online papers, that many people disagree with the views provided in the papers, which is heartening if you're a non-liberal. Lastly, the internet permits one to reach out to a whole world of like-thinking people who would otherwise be unknown and very difficult to reach - which is again heartening if you're a non-liberal in a liberal world.

JP said...

Another benefit of the internet is Google books. There is a tremendous wealth of information in free, older books - indeed, I have not *bought* any books for my Nook yet, since I have yet to read all the good ones that are free. These are especially interesting when they provide a non-liberal perspective on historical events. Without the internet, one would have to track them down in obscure libraries, a much more laborious process...

Anonymous said...

Without the internet and mass media, we would not *need* the Orthosphere!

Yes. But you are conflating two different things: mass media and the Internet.

The point is that mass media came much earlier and were COMPLETELY dominated by a liberal intellectual elite.

This is what caused the dechristianization of our society, because people were submitted to dechristianization messages all the time. Liberal thought, feminism, hedonism, leftism in general. This was introduced little by little, step by step and no dissonant voice was allowed in the media.

When the Internet got to the masses during the 1990s, the dechristianization was well under way. The Internet has not stopped the process but it has not caused it (although, as you say, it has not produced tangible benefits). The Internet only amplifies current trends.

If the Internet had been invented BEFORE the appearance of mass media, it would have been different. The traditional, common-sense ideas would have prevailed, but it turned out to be invented at the peak of leftist folly.

When I knew the Internet, I was convinced that the leftist worldview was obviously true. It was what my teachers have taught me, every TV show and newspaper embraced it, most books were drowned in that point of view. How could I have figured out otherwise?

It was the Internet who taught me that feminism is false.

It was the Internet who allowed me to hear non-nihilist messages.

When the liberal system collapses, the ideas to get over it will come from the Internet, not from the mass media, which are part of the establishment.

Bruce Charlton said...

"When the liberal system collapses, the ideas to get over it will come from the Internet, not from the mass media, which are part of the establishment."

Actually, I think the ideas will come from people that have almost nothing to do with the internet, but get their ideas from the spoken word.

Anonymous said...

"Actually, I think the ideas will come from people that have almost nothing to do with the internet, but get their ideas from the spoken word."

Quite possibly. But these ideas will need some ways to reach the masses. These ways can be books and/or blogs, but it won't be press, radio or TV, which are controlled by the establishment.

Bruce Charlton said...

"But these ideas will need some ways to reach the masses."

By teaching in religious establishments.

The Crow said...

Net benefit of the internet?
For the first time in human history, the oddballs have been able to discover that there are many oddballs, just as odd as they are, and that makes them not so odd, after all.
The lonely because of something have found a way to discard that loneliness, and see themselves as part of a larger entity.
This may be ultimately very helpful in allowing people insight into the concept of 'the larger picture'.
Which can result the individual realizing the nature of God, whereas previously, as a solitary, disconnected outcast, there would have been little chance of that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - and yet, in my personal experience, the proportion of oddballs round and about has plummeted since the advent of the internet. Perhaps not a cause, but certainly any encouragement of odd-ballism by the web has been swamped by other factors.

Nergol said...

in my personal experience, the proportion of oddballs round and about has plummeted since the advent of the internet.

Correlation, not causation.

Societies don't turn on dimes, but you seem to be ready to throw the internet in the trash because it hasn't turned Sodom into Byzantium in the 15 years of its existence. As someone else pointed out, before this we just had newspapers, television, and NY/London-based big publishing, on all of which secular liberals had an unbreakable stranglehold until the internet came along. The incalculable cultural and spiritual damage caused by all of this couldn't be undone by *anything* (short of the return of Christ Himself) in such a short span. In short, you seem to be larding up the internet with insanely unrealistic expectations, and then throwing it into the pit in disgust because it didn't live up to them.

Suggesting that we should do away with the internet because it has naked women, leftists, and atheists on it is like saying that we should do away with paper because The Communist Manifesto and Penthouse were published on it. I'm sorry, that's just silly. It's a triumph of nostalgia over sense - like maybe if we did away with modernity's machines, modernity's philosophy would go away with them. It just doesn't work that way.

"By teaching in religious establishments."

OK, but what if you don't just want to preach to the choir?

How do you reach people who don't go to religious establishments, but who you might be able to convince that they should, if you stick with teaching within religious establishments? How do you reach the people who need to be convinced, if you talk only to the already-convinced?

Also, consider this: You live in England. I live in California. I'm sure you can do your own calculations on the odds that I would have found your work if you'd stuck to "teaching in religious establishments". I've found the work of a lot of people who've profoundly changed my worldview online - people like Fred Reed, Vox Day, and, of course, yourself. These are all people who would never have been able to say the things they do in the dark days of the pre-internet media. The internet creates a table in the marketplace of ideas for ideas that never would have been allowed in twenty years ago. To mope and wax nostalgic about those times instead of seizing this opportunity is to engage in navel-gazing, which is useless, and despair, which is sinful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nergol - you are setting-up and then demolishing a straw man - every argument you make, I have already dealt with. Maybe you don't accept these arguments, but it just looks like you haven't read the posting.

Nergol said...

@bgc With respect, I read the posting, I just don't buy it. We can wish all we want that mankind would return to the days where the only piece of media in a house was the family Bible, but that's just not going to happen. And, in fact, that idea is even a sort of historical myth we have created for ourselves about a past that it is all to easy to overly romanticize.

Again, I just can't help but feel that behind this is the idea that if we got rid of modernity's machines, that modernity's philosophical ideas would disappear, as well. That's just not the case. the internet is just a tool; just a means of communication. If voices like ours aren't loud or voluminous on it, that means that we have to get to work, not that we have to harumph to each other and engage in fantasies about the virtues of log cabins and hand-written codexes.

It is all too easy for being a reactionary to degenerate into being a nostalgic, and from there to degenerate further into a "You kids and your crazy skateboards, get off my lawn!" sort of general crankiness. But I don't see what that would accomplish.

Bruce Charlton said...

@N - "We can wish all we want that mankind would return to the days where the only piece of media in a house was the family Bible, but that's just not going to happen."

I think it will happen almost for sure, and within the next generation - but what follows may be very horrible indeed.

" if we got rid of modernity's machines, that modernity's philosophical ideas would disappear, as well."

Advanced modernity - political correctness, depends on the mass media - without a mass media people could not believe the absurd insanities which they do - common sense would spontaneously supervene.

So modernist ideas would be very much weaker and less extreme, although they would not disappear.

Nergol said...


Let me start with this question. You call the internet a "distraction". A distraction from what, may I ask? From studying the scriptures all night and all day? You cannot possibly - can you? - believe that if the internet (and all other modern mass media) disappeared, that that's what everyone would suddenly turn to doing with their evenings.

Without going into my academic qualifications, it's not bragging to say that I'm someone who knows a lot about the 19th century. Let me assure you, that any expectation you may have that getting rid of the 20th century's media technologies would turn us into a society of lay Thomas Mertons, spending our evenings in humble surroundings poring over the Holy Word, is balderdash. We found plenty of "distractions" in the era before electronic media. There were music halls, cheap plays, bawdy comedy acts, bareknuckle boxing matches, burlesque shows, and whorehouses. But mostly there were saloons. Lots and lots of saloons, where people drank to a degree nearly unimaginable today. The 19th century was soaked in alcohol. There's a reason that Americans of 90 years ago thought they had to ban booze completely.

And, by the way, I say that as someone who loves the 19th century and considers it the height of the western civilization (if we count it as something that spanned roughly from the late 15th century to the present). I'm just not unrealistic about it.

As to the idea that people could not believe leftist-atheist absurdities without a modern mass media, let me remind you that the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, and the French Revolution in 1789; before, and long before, respectively, modern media technologies existed.

Finally, the internet is the hammer which will smash the Hollywood-New York axis of evil that has had an unbreakable stranglehold on electronic media, mass-market publishing, and even newspapers for a century. I fail to see how that's a bad thing. Any technology is just a tool - it can be used for good or bad ends. The problem with 20th century media technologies (movies, radio, newspapers, television) was that they had high barriers to entry that meant that they ended up in the hands of a small, well-funded group of fanatically leftist self-appointed cultural "elites". The internet rids us of these gatekeepers to the marketplace of ideas, and lets dissenting voices reach large audiences.

This is an opportunity. it is our responsibility to make the most of it.