How the internet has changed

How the internet has changed

The world wide web as originally conceived was supposed to be a place where the free exchange of ideas took place, regardless of geopolitical, economic or ideological considerations. Much like India – a truly democratic nation with its many cultures, many languages, all shades of opinions and myriad belief systems. Or, if you prefer, a “functioning anarchy”, a memorable phrase used by John Kenneth Galbraith in describing India when he was serving as the US Ambassador in the late 1960s.

Not so much anymore since the web has essentially become a forum where buyers and sellers meet, a purely mercantile activity devoted to promoting a consumer culture, global in scope but controlled by a handful of companies based in either the United States or China. The web or, more commonly, the internet, has been touted as promoting democracy across the globe when, in reality, it has done the opposite. After all, corporations are essentially hierarchical, undemocratic organisations with the singular goal of enriching their executives and shareholders.

If the internet is viewed as a vehicle for transporting data/information, there is much to be learned from the historical role played by transportation technology in shaping societies and cultures through the ages. The history of transportation technology is more relevant than other histories since it has been in the forefront in all matters relating to war, trade and colonialism.

Irrespective of what is being transported, whether physical (people, goods) or virtual (information) and how it is transported (ships, planes, fibre optic cables or print media), there has always been a tendency by prevailing power structures to control both.

For example, while the invention of the printing press made it feasible for people to produce, access and distribute books on a global scale, it also resulted in concerted efforts by authorities to control the free flow of ideas by bans on publishing, numerous book burning incidents, etc. The internet has proved to be no exception.

In the early days of the internet, the user could freely roam through the web out of sheer curiosity and not have to worry about being tracked, hacked or deluged with advertisements. This is no longer possible since any search for information on the web is acutely monitored by companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook to provide a guided tour of which sites to visit and what to see, read or buy. This curated and mechanistic approach to surfing the web has resulted in the loss of creativity, imagination and a sense of wonderment on the part of the user.

In his 1992 book Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, author Neil Postman defined “Technopoly” as a society which believes “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

In another influential book, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business‘, Postman bemoaned the influence of television in destroying serious and rational public conversation that had been sustained for centuries by the printing press and that technocrats being given cultural control of social institutions had resulted in visual imagery reducing politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. His observations are no less valid today, especially as applied to the internet and social media platforms.

Here is a sampling of titles of recently published books on the evolution of the internet: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridhardas; Webtopia: The world wide wreck of tech and how to make the net work by Peter Lewis; Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan; Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier; and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

If the titles are any indication, we should all be worried about the future of the internet. Perhaps one is better off being a fly on the wall (not the Facebook one!) eavesdropping on what is transpiring, rather than be a fly caught in the web, waiting to be devoured by spiders. And if one is an innovator dreaming of becoming a spider, it is important to keep in mind that spiders do feast on other spiders. To quote from the lyrics of the rock band Pink Floyd, “Welcome, my son, welcome to the machine. We told you what to dream…”

(The writer is a computer scientist interested in the societal implications of information technology)