Is the Internet Worth it? Do The Good Parts Outweigh the Bad?
The story goes that when the Great Library of Alexandria burned down in 48 B.C., it had a copy of every book in the “known world.” Its destruction represented the annihilation of so much of the world’s knowledge that humanity lost things that are now gone forever. What’s remarkable is that each of us holds, in our pocket or bag, a device that connects us to infinitely more information than could have ever been held in a million Great Libraries.
But is that such a good thing? Now that we have over 20 years of connectivity under our belts, it’s worth asking, do the good parts of the internet outweigh the bad? I’m not so sure they do.
The internet is an absolutely incredible thing and is as important as the taming of fire and the invention of the wheel. Within a matter of seconds we can resolve nearly any question that has ever been answered, just by fluttering our fingers. Because of the internet, we don’t have to worry about getting lost anymore, or learn how to balance a checkbook, or leave the house to go shopping. You can order almost anything that’s for sale, in any part of the world, without putting on pants or talking to a human being.
But once again, is it worth it? Is having a new shirt delivered the next day worth the degradation of workers’ rights? Does being able to fly relatively inexpensively anywhere in the world merit the destruction of our planet? Is being able to keep up with everyone you’ve ever met important enough to allow the subversion of our democracy?
Throughout most of history, whoever controlled the information had the power. If you could keep people illiterate, then they wouldn’t read the books that could ignite the ideas that would set them free. Now though, since everyone has access to every question that has ever been answered, it’s the people who control the disinformation who are in command. Places like the United Kingdom and the United States are slouching toward fascism for the same reason we have to endure the ignorance of anti-vaxxers and flat earthers. The glut of information that the internet allows is being weaponized against us.
And it’s the tech giants that have not only allowed this to happen but facilitated it just to make more money. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have reached multi-billion dollar valuations while doing very little to stop the spread of disinformation. By this point the leaders of these companies know how and why their platforms are being exploited and manipulated. Yet, instead of taking actions that might literally save the world, they use the First Amendment as a shield to hide the fact that all they really care about is making money.
When there’s an infinite amount of information, there needs to be something that helps people recognize what’s real and what’s bullshit. And this is what these platforms should be focused on, not new ways to optimize advertisements.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the Bay Area, one of the biggest issues with regulating tech is that it moves far faster than the government. By the time lawmakers realize a certain platform or technology is problematic, that company has already become too rich and powerful to be properly reined in. As we saw with AirBnB and Uber, by the time their impact was noticed by legislators, the companies were worth billions of dollars and could hire the best lawyers in the world to ensure they could continue to make money at society’s expense.
Another major problem with tech companies is that they only ask “can I do this?” instead of “should I do this?” When the only grownups in the room are the ones offering to invest millions of dollars into your idea, there’s nobody to say “well what are the negative side effects that might occur?” Vulture Capitalists don’t care if a technology will put millions out of work, or if it will ruin the environment or help fascists destroy our democracy. All they care about is making money.
So is the internet worth it? Hell no. Not in this incarnation. An internet that enriches a handful of people, and leaves the rest of us just content enough not to realize we’ve been had, is garbage. An internet that’s built on algorithms that prop up lies and disinformation is terrifyingly dangerous. An internet where the companies sell our data to whoever is willing to pay for it is quite literally selling us out to the highest bidder.
The dream of the Information Superhighway has been replaced by the nightmare of the Disinformation Monster Truck Rally, and we are all the worse for it. I’d trade the internet we had in the early 2000s for what we have now any day. Sure I’d have to go back to printing out directions from MapQuest, but that’s far preferable to letting Vladamir Putin keep putting sociopaths in the White House.
Unfortunately, it’s too late.