My friend, a top Internet expert, sips his beer. “Look how you can chat for free, with video, to your friends around the world,” he says. “See how quickly you can buy a book, book a flight, check in, or check something out. The Internet has made the world fantastically better.”
“No,” I say, “I use the Internet for hours every day. But it could destroy us all. For example:
(i) the Internet polarises opinion. Imagine a billion people in a desert, shouting. Who can shout loudest? The best way to attract online attention is to be shocking and extreme – sometimes called “spice”. Slag someone off. Be outrageous. You know that famous, reasonable, internet commentary site? No? That’s because there isn’t one. You can’t be reasonable and famous on-line;
(ii) the Internet clouds understanding. If an established news outlet says something wrong or daft, people care. Private Eye or The Onion will mock them. But in the Internet, no-one edits your racist hate-speech or loony conspiracy theories. The Internet teems with this stuff, which tends to veer to weird extremes because that attracts readers. Result: the barmy ramblings of religious fruitcakes and conspiracy nut-cases occupy more megabytes on the internet than curated information which someone has tried to make accurate and evidence-based;
(iii) the concatenation of crap in the Internet makes it difficult for people to distinguish between truth and reality. Human beings have had trouble with this since the first shamans and druids. The difference is that the Internet puts all the most barking fruitcake nonsense in the world a click of a mouse away from billions of computer users. Result: the Internet is a radical extremist’s or a conspiracy theorist’s dream: a limitless canvas; an unfathomable pool of recruits and converts;
(iv) to make things worse, established news outlets are frantically competing with the eye-catching loony click-bait on the internet (“7 foods which help you lose weight, fast!”) to attract readers and, thus, advertising revenue. With a few honourable exceptions (step forward, the Financial Times) traditional media is engaged in a race to the bottom, often literally;
(v) anonymity thrives in the Internet. Why were trolls never a problem for newspapers? Because editors wouldn’t publish information from people they couldn’t identify. Somehow on the Internet, anonymity has become mixed up with free speech. People think they have the right to be anonymous, so they can spout weird, aggressive or hurtful nonsense. State-sponsored trolling adds a further dimension of dangerous idiocy – if the first 500 comments on an opinion piece criticising country X say the author is a drooling ignorant halfwit and country X is a paradise, some readers may allow those 500 comments to influence their views. Other readers are deterred from dissenting because they will be shouted down. Result: more shouting, more polarisation. Anonymity may be seductive but it sucks for “free speech”;
(vi) the Internet has robbed us of knowledge. We think we know everything because we can look it up fast. Two problems: first, it’s intrinsically good to know stuff and have opinions of your own so you can understand what the hell’s going on. Second, where to look up the stuff we don’t know? Where on the Internet are the reliable sources of information?
(vii) taking all this together, we all face a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation in which people and politicians are increasingly attracted to extreme ideas and political soundbites. Know any politicians or religious nut-jobs who espouse a crazy, simplified view of the world in which the unilateral use of power or bloodshed is brandished as a solution to everything? Worried they might be getting too popular, or even be elected or seize power in a big country? What? They already have?
“Be afraid,” I say. “The Internet is more of a threat to civilisation than religious extremism, expansionist powers, AIDS, SARS or any other acronym. If we’re lucky, the ability of the Internet to put a mass of useful info a click away will outweigh the downside. But right now, things don’t look too good to me. I think I’ll give it 5 out of 10 in case it causes the world as we know it to implode.”
“Put that in your blog,” my friend says. “I’d love to see what comments you get.”
For: invaluable, has transformed the world for the better in countless ways.
Against: holds the potential to plunge the world into a new dark age.
P.P.S. or you may wish to look at another piece I wrote about the Internet: Paris, the Internet, and the FT – after the November 2015 Paris attacks…
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