25 Years Later: The Good and Bad of the Web

The World Wide Web was invented in March 1989. Next year marks its 25th anniversary. By the end of 2012 there were an estimated 2.4 billion Internet users and more than one billion Facebook users. By 2016 Cisco expects 3.4 billion Internet users. If we step back, and if we’re willing to speak in sweeping generalizations, what can we say about the good and bad that the World Wide Web has brought us over the past 25 years? How will it shape the lives of its next billion users?

First a brief disclaimer: It’s ridiculous to speak of “the Internet” as if it were a thing in the same way that a baseball or a microwave is a thing. There is the physical infrastructure of the Internet — the submarine cables, the cell phone towers, the bundles of fiberoptic cables hiding under the sidewalks — and then there are the various protocols, HTTP, the databases, the apps, the little notifications that buzz in our pockets, the way we download books to our kindles and newspapers to our tablets. All of this and more is “the Internet,” which makes it nearly impossible to discuss and debate it in a way that leads to insight.

But that won’t stop us from trying. Nicholas Carr says the Internet is making us stupid. Clive Thompson has a new book out, which argues that, wait, the Internet is making us smart. And a few weeks ago I participated in a panel at Google’s Press Summit about this most all-encompassing topic: the social impact of the Internet. (If you think the Internet is difficult to define, then try defining social impact.)

If generalize we must, then generalize we shall. What follows are what I see as four positive and four negative tendencies over the past twenty years that are greatly influenced by “the Internet.”

Positive

Collaboration — Above all else, the Internet lowers the transaction costs that otherwise prevent us from coming together to collaborate toward some implicit goal. This is the main argument of Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everbody. It is true whether the collaboration ultimately leads to protest in the streets, the creation of a new piece of music, a startup, or a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, online collaboration has proven more effective at protesting against institutions than constructing new ones.

Discovery — Several years ago, a Venezuelan professor told me of her childhood fantasy of superpower glasses that would answer her every question. What kind of flower is this? Why is the sky blue? Where does this river come from? She realized one day that her smart phone had become those glasses (this was years before Google Glass). She was always a curious person, but now she had answers within seconds. Another friend runs a fact-checking website. Her generation congratulates her for investigating the claims of misleading politicians and pundits. But her son thinks that fact-checking is just a natural part of life. Any time there is a debate among his friends, they search online for the answer and context immediately. Discovery isn’t just about finding facts. It means you can find new music, literature, a free university lecture, new vacation destinations … but only if you’re curious enough to seek them out.

Voice — A couple of months ago I was at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Brazil where Glenn Greenwald was the keynote speaker. The most exciting thing that has happened to journalism in the past quarter century, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), is that any aspiring journalist can begin publishing to an international audience within minutes and without the permission of any editor or publisher. An aspiring DJ or musician has access to millions on SoundCloud, filmmakers have access to billions of viewers on YouTube, and self-published writers have access to millions of readers connected to Amazon’s Kindle store. What has emerged is far removed from the democratization of self-expression that many of us had hoped for a decade ago, but we shouldn’t take for granted the significant opportunities for publication, exchange and distribution that were not available ten or twenty years ago.

Creation — The Internet puts tools and tutorials in our hands that considerably reduce the barriers to create. This is true whether you want to launch a new startup, make a feature-length animation using open source software, or become a professional photographer with a $1,500 camera. Creativity becomes more accessible online, which leads to more competition, which leads to even greater creativity. Those who thrive are able to focus and filter out the distractions.

Negative

Surveillance — With each passing year we are become increasingly accustomed to surveillance by private companies, the government, and our employers. Though slightly dated, for a good overview I recommend Wall Street Journal’s three-year series, What They Know. Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is a provocative literary take on what happens when we lose all control of our privacy. Surveillance instills fear and self-censorship. No longer do we have the freedom to act one way with our friends and another way with our colleagues. Nor do we have the freedom to overcome the embarrassments of our past; a single regrettable moment from a drunken revelry in high school can become the defining image of our identity today. We become constantly anxious that what we say today will be used against us tomorrow.

Filter bubbles & Echo chambers — Birds of a feather flock together. This is the truism that underlies Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire, and Joseph Turow’s The Daily You. Websites like Facebook, Amazon, and the New York Times point us to content based on what we’ve read before and what our friends are reading. As a result, we are exposed to fewer perspectives that challenge our opinions and assumptions. We lose our capacity to benefit from serendipity and debate. Granted, echo chambers didn’t begin with the Internet. Journalist Bill Bishop makes a compelling case in The Big Sort that economic, cultural and demographic forces have been sorting the United States into homogenous communities since the 1970s.

Narcissism — Exactly one year ago I wrote about the phenomenon of self-portraits and what they say about the future of narcissism. This was before the term ‘selfie’ was a pervasive part of our cultural currency and certainly before it was named word of the year by Oxford English Dictionary. Just as the Internet didn’t cause birds of a feather to flock together, neither did it create narcissism. Navel-gazing is a powerful part of being human. It is only logical that we should be interested in ourselves. But the Internet has empowered us with a sense of control over how others perceive our identity based on what we share online. Our brains reward us with little squirts of dopamine every time a ‘like’ or comment gives us a sense of approval of who we are and how we look. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is an entertaining account of a fictional future where our sense of self-worth depends on our computer-generated “fuckability score” (see Lulu). Timothy Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week exemplifies the self-promotion that guides much of our online behavior.

Distraction — If narcissism is the flip side of ‘voice,’ then distraction is the dark side of discovery. We have access to more information than ever before, but it is increasingly atomized, fragmented, devoid of a narrative to give it meaning. The most-saved article on Pocket this year was titled “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.” Its author, Rolf Dobelli, says that most of us have recognized the dangers of living with an overabundance of food, but we’re still struggling to live productive, content lives with an overabundance of information. Clay Johnson uses the same metaphor in his book The Information Diet, which offers readers tips to derive more pleasure, meaning and utility from the information we consume. We’ve all experienced the empty feeling that comes from wasting four hours of our day flipping mindlessly from website to website without ever taking the time to question what we get out of it.

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Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

This is the challenge that faces us each and every day: How do we take advantage of the positive aspects of the Internet while reducing the negative ones? How do we embrace the serendipity that awaits the online flâneur without succumbing to the mind-numbing distraction of selfie-surfing and celebrity gossip? How do we experience the thrill of collaborating with others while ensuring that we don’t limiting ourselves to only like-minded points of view? How do we benefit from the satisfaction of creative self-expression without yielding to the susceptibility of self-obsession?

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