Lately, I’ve caught myself thinking back to what the internet was like when I was a little kid in middle school (circa 2007). Back then, the web was this cool little place that lived inside my computer, one which I’d occasionally log into to mess around with friends on a little forum we’d created for ourselves. We were a glorious band of geeks, a bootstrapped “game development team” with a number of entertaining pursuits, including but not limited to: a friendly 3D modelling competition featuring a Honda Odyssey and half of a Lamborghini Murcielago, a space shoot-em-up game built completely in-house from visuals to music, and a number of entirely random philosophical discussions (middle schoolers on philosophy? Yeah, you heard right). But that was it. The physical presence of the internet, in my middle school mind, was limited entirely to the computer on the desk in my room. Consciously, a store was still a brick-and-mortar store, a hangout still had a location, and my friendships, however sparse at the time, consisted mostly of face-to-face conversations.
Back then, I savored the cutting edge. Dual-booting the latest copy of Ubuntu 7.10 and a heavily modified version of Windows XP, I easily identified with new and upcoming internet revolutions - as one of the first regular users of Skype, as a beta-tester for games that weren’t even close to finished yet, and as a supporter of the free and open source software (FOSS) movement. Whether I was too young to see the potential damage or too idealistic to consider other perspectives, I only saw positive things when I looked into the future of the internet. At the time, my computer was akin to a magical train station that could take me anywhere in the world. I viewed it with awe, not apprehension. New technology seemed to be an inherently good thing, and therefore it was worth jumping on every train of new software or hardware that passed through the station.
Can one trust the internet?
Back in middle school, this question didn’t appear to matter, as the internet felt so easily bounded by the laptop on my desk that I didn’t see it affecting my day-to-day interactions with other people. Boy, was I wrong.
Now, things really have changed. Let’s travel to a more recent scene: I’m sitting here in my sunlit college apartment with my laptop and a phone that is just about as fast (we’re talking CPU frequency, however incongruous the comparison may prove to be) as that Windows-XP and Ubuntu-touting laptop I used way back in middle school. The phone beeps and vibrates loudly, grabbing my attention and skidding a good four inches across the tabletop. Exasperated, I pick up the phone to learn that somebody has requested me as a contact on Skype. Cluttering the bar at the top of the screen are old notifications from my email, Facebook, and Twitter. The web browser on the laptop in front of me is similarly congested with connections. Every action I make on any one of these devices sends data points to servers scattered all around the globe in a process as fascinating as it is worrying.
It’s difficult to write about the internet without overindulging in alarmism, but I’d be fairly conservative in saying that our interactions on the internet have more or less turned our notion of “privacy” on its head. Can one trust the internet? Nope. With even an elementary knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the web comes a realization that very little of what we do on the internet is truly private. With centralization (i.e. Facebook, Google) come serious discussions of oppression and exploitation. With de-centralization comes optimism colored by the legitimate concern of illicit activity (Bittorrent, the Deep Web, and even Bitcoin). When producers on the web began valuing attention over the responsibility to produce honest, original content, much of the original legitimacy and value in the web has since either disappeared or become more difficult to find. More on this in another post, but I think that the web has taught us to systematically overvalue conciseness, which is good and bad.
In departing from my excited middle school self, I’ve become decidedly conservative about the Internet. I now choose to check Facebook late at night, queue up posts on Twitter in advance (I share articles I find interesting and ask questions of a larger audience), and occasionally restrict email usage so people realize that it is not an instant communication stream. I try not to use instant messaging clients.
I’m not the first to say this, but the Internet has found a way of making us uncomfortable on a deeply human level. Some of us have even asked the ultimate question: Why not leave it completely and demolish all of one’s accounts? Take a look at Paul Miller’s discoveries on his year without Internet. As Paul found, the Internet has become an immutable part of our society and culture; its usage can be limited, but ultimately people of our generation must adapt.
Growth and Apprehension
Once again, I find myself optimistic about the future, if perhaps not in the same way as I was in middle school. My apprehension of the internet’s future is not insignificant, and we should all continue to discuss the many concerns we should have about the way the web affects our every day lives. How has the internet affected our attention spans? Our ability to learn? How does it affect our interactions with friends? The Internet has a frighteningly large influence on our lives, and there are few rules in place that regulate the terms of its interaction with humanity.
The internet will continue to grow at a breakneck pace. Even though this rapid growth will continue to prompt deeply ethical concerns, I think it’s important to remain optimistic about the internet’s capabilities to affect change. While centralization can be a bad thing with real concerns, taking the bare elements of centralized services and melding them with the agility of decentralized data collection has led to an explosion of data-driven pursuits and related communities. One of my favorites is Ushahidi, a crisis-reporting platform that relies on massively decentralized, crowdsourced reporting of events. We’re getting better and better at quantifying the world around us (actually, this point is up for debate. Either way, we’re getting better at making more data). At universities, startups, and established companies around the globe, the internet is being harnessed to collect and analyze data in interesting ways. I think there’s a lot to be excited about.
- [Book] Present Shock:When Everything Happens Now - Douglas RushKoff
- [Book] The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains - Nicholas Carr
- [Article] Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’ - Daniel J. Solove
- [Reddit Post] As someone living in China, let me tell you what life is like with restricted internet
- [Report] What Are We Not Doing When We’re Online - National Bureau of Economic Research (University Paywall)