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“The Internet Society”

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The Economist presents a wide ranging, boldly ambitious consideration of “The Internet Society,” looking at the conditions and ramifications of where we are now and where we are going in a connected world. The information is edifying and some of the conclusions are surprising. The whole endeavor is bookended by John Perry Barlow:

    “GOVERNMENTS of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

    Ah, it all seems so long ago. In 1996 John Perry Barlow, a former cattle rancher, lyricist for a rock band, the Grateful Dead, and commentator on technology, posted these words in an online discussion group. His “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” was an 800-word credo which claimed that users of the internet inhabited a new world of creativity, equality and justice which would forever remain beyond the reach of existing governments. “We will create a civilisation of the mind in cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” he concluded with a flourish.

    It is hard to believe today, but Mr Barlow’s musings struck a chord at the time, spreading rapidly through the internet. The declaration encapsulated the exhilaration and wonder of millions of people as they logged on to the world wide web for the first time. It really did seem possible that the internet had launched a spontaneous revolution that might lead to a brave new borderless world.

    Seven years later, Mr Barlow’s claims sound absurd: just another example of the 1990s hype that produced the dotcom boom and bust. The internet, it seems, has turned out to be simply another appliance, a useful new medium like radio or television, not something likely to usher in a “civilisation of the mind”.

And at the other end of the survey:

    The dream of John Perry Barlow and others that cyberspace would be free of such choices, a community entirely liberated from the lumbering governments of the tangible world, always seemed eccentric. With the benefit of hindsight, it can now be seen as an escapist fantasy made plausible only by the confusion that followed the startlingly rapid growth of the internet in its early days. The truth is that we all live in the internet society now, whether or not we spend any time online. The future will bring exciting, disorienting change as electronic communication reaches ever deeper into everyone’s life. The prizes will be great. A more productive and safer society is possible. But things could also go nastily wrong.

In between they touch upon “Digital Dilemmas“:

    new electronic technologies deal with the very essence of human society: communication between people. Earlier technologies, from printing to the telegraph, have done likewise, and have wrought big changes over time. But the social changes over the coming decades are likely to be much more extensive, and to happen much faster, than any in the past, because the technologies driving them are continuing to develop at a breakneck pace. More importantly, they look as if together they will be as pervasive and ubiquitous as electricity. Whether this will be for good or ill is impossible to predict, because how they are applied will be a matter of social and political choice. Many of these choices will be difficult and divisive.

    ….The reason to think that the internet revolution will not only resume but accelerate is that advances in its underlying technologies show no signs of slowing down. The power of computer chips continues to race ahead. Moore’s law—according to which the power of a computer chip will double about every 18 months (see chart 1)—has proved to be true since 1965

    ….Victor Zue, director of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, expects high-speed access to the internet to be virtually free in rich countries within five years.

    ….Tim Berners-Lee, famous as a founder of the world wide web, is trying to win agreement from a coalition of companies to establish the standards for what he calls the “semantic web”, a more intelligent version of today’s internet that will take the drudgery out of searching for information by evaluating its context.

    ….For the sake of argument, this survey will assume that we are heading towards a networked society of ubiquitous, mobile communications capable of constant monitoring. Whether this arrives in 20, 30 or 40 years does not really matter. The point is that the destination seems not merely possible, but probable, so it is not too soon to ask: what do we want this technology to do?

Privacy:

    Cookies caused a furore when their widespread use was first publicised years ago, but now they are accepted as standard practice; indeed, their use has expanded vastly, and using the web without them is now virtually impossible. Information they provide is shared by thousands of websites through advertising-network companies. The largest of these, DoubleClick, has agreements with over 11,000 websites and maintains cookies on 100m users. These can be linked to hundreds of pieces of information about each user’s browsing behaviour. In addition, users are being tracked through other methods by internet service providers, website hosts and e-mail services.

When I was researching the Encyclopedia of Record Producers discography database I used the Web extensively – I didn’t always want the sites I was visiting to know who I was. I purged my cookies daily, even hourly – haha! But now I have so many sites I visit regularly that require registration, I just leave the cookies on and delete them only when the load gets too big, knowing I will have to reregister at my familiar haunts. I have allowed convenience to trump privacy. I’m not the only one.

    Ironically, the most effective solution to the privacy problem may be something that most privacy defenders fiercely resist: a highly secure identification system, perhaps linked to two or three different biometric measures. True, this would give a great boost to ubiquitous monitoring, but it would also make it possible to track precisely who taps into databases. This seems essential if access to databases is ever going to be properly controlled.

Fun with Dick and Jane:

    JANE remembers her parents saying they spent a lot of time getting the kids off to school and then fighting their way into work through rush-hour traffic to sit at a desk in front of a big square box that would often “crash”. Thank heavens life is so much easier now. Rush hours were eliminated years ago: Jane works when it suits her, and carries her office around in her pocket. The files she needs from work fit on a square-inch memory chip. Anything else she wants, including the three dozen newspapers and magazines she likes to skim regularly, she can get anywhere from the web. Sometimes she still meets her colleagues in the same room for “face time”, but she thinks this is overrated. Usually three-dimensional video does just as well.

    ….Certainly he doesn’t agree with Jane that everything is perfect. Yes, travel is much easier than it used to be, because everything is arranged instantly on the web. But there are parts of the world he cannot visit any more because the political oppression there is just too frightening. And life at home is such a treadmill. Dick’s boss is demanding live access for more and more hours of the day, and video messages are always piling up. To escape these pressures, Dick spends too much on entertainment, but to pay those big bills he has to spend yet more hours at work. He deeply resents Microdisneysoft charging for absolutely everything, and Timesonywarner isn’t much better.

Our old pal copyright:

    Ever since its foundations were laid in Britain and America in the 18th century, copyright law has tried to strike a balance between offering an incentive to writers and publishers to create and disseminate works, and guaranteeing public access to the flow of ideas. The thought behind this is that “intellectual property”, as published work and inventions have since become known, is different in kind from tangible property. Economists call ideas, and their expression, “non-rivalrous” – for example, if I take your car, you are left without a car, but if I borrow or steal your idea, we can both use it. As Thomas Jefferson famously put it: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” Whereas all tangible property is scarce, ideas or their expression are not. Copyright is the grant of a temporary monopoly, through a ban on copying, to offer those who generate ideas a chance to garner a profit.

    ….Today both American and European copyrights, harmonised by treaty, are for 70 years beyond the life of the author and 95 years after publication, or 125 years after creation for works made “for hire” and owned by corporations.

    ….is the debate about copyright irrelevant? Eventually, perhaps. But first there will be constant warfare between those who see copyright protection as a threat to the new digital world, and those who see that world as a threat to their wallets. Certainly, the content industries are likely to experience the most upheaval. They may be able to retard the growth of copying on the internet for a time, but they cannot hold back the advance of technology altogether. This will undermine their existing business models, based as they are on print, analogue broadcasting and the sale of physical products such as compact discs. Even if the “total copyright protection” scenario sketched above prevails, content providers will have to reinvent themselves. But whatever happens, creativity is unlikely to grind to a halt. The show must go on.

Democracy:

    Communication is the lifeblood of politics, and every big change in communication technology, from the printing press to television, has eventually produced big, and often unexpected, changes in politics. As the internet becomes mobile and ubiquitous, it will bring about changes of its own. Precisely what these will be is not yet clear, but the earliest claims of cyber-dreamers – that the internet will produce a shift of power away from political elites to ordinary citizens – may well become reality. One of the big political debates of the next three decades will be about the relative merits of direct versus representative democracy.

    ….Those arguing for more direct democracy will reply that regular polls of the electorate should go a long way towards avoiding irrational policymaking. If voters find that they have made conflicting decisions, then another ballot can be held to resolve them. Moreover, even in a direct democracy not all intermediary institutions, such as political parties, government departments or even legislatures, will necessarily be abolished. Legislatures might survive to monitor elected governments, just as they do today, and to formulate and propose legislation. Voters might confine themselves to making the final decision about what legislation to enact. Evidence from the hundreds of initiatives held in Switzerland and in American states does not bear out fears that voters will take undue risks or oppress minorities. Electorates are generally risk-averse, upholding the status quo unless they are thoroughly convinced that change is needed.

Repression:

    Worryingly, the same technological trends that are so rapidly eroding privacy in the West could put powerful tools in the hands of repressive regimes. As more human interactions are conducted and recorded electronically, as the ability to analyse databases grows and as video and other offline surveillance technologies become cheaper and more effective, it will become ever easier for authoritarian governments to set up systems of widespread surveillance. George Orwell’s Big Brother of “1984” might yet become a reality, a few decades later than he expected.

Choices:

    Many of these choices will not be a matter for legislatures or courts, but will involve the informal renegotiation of interpersonal relations. This has already begun. For most people the convenience of e-mail, mobile phones and voicemail has proved irresistible, but many have also begun to feel the downside of being constantly in touch. Some feel obliged to respond to messages immediately. Others try to limit the expectations of their boss or family by taking longer to reply, or switching off. As it becomes easier to know where people are at any time, and to communicate with them, the burdens as well as the benefits of being “always on” will become more acute, and private bargains between workmates, friends, lovers, parents and children will have to be struck.

All of this is well considered and fascinating, but it is also a good bet that something – technological, societal, political, whatever – will happen to send the future careening off in another, unforeseen direction entirely.

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