barry_c_smith's picture
Professor & Director, Institute of Philosophy School of Advanced Study University of London

The growth of the Internet has reversed previous assumptions: the private is now public; the local appears globally; information is entertainment; consumers turn into producers; everyone is an expert; and the socially isolated become part of an enormous community preferring the virtual to the real. What have all these changes brought about?

Initially, they appear empowering. Everyone can have their say, opinion is democratic; and at a time when natural resources are shrinking, and where environmental threats require us to limit our emissions, the Internet seems to be an ever expanding and almost limitless resource. Here, it seems, I discover a parallel world where neat models replace messy reality, where freedom reigns, where wrongs are righted, and where fates can be changed. I am cheered by the possibilities.

However, the truth is that the virtual world grows out of, and ultimately depends on, the one world whose inputs it draws on, whose resources it consumes, and whose flaws it inevitably inherits. I find everything there: the good, the bland, the important, the trivial, the fascinating and the off-putting. And just as there are crusading writers, and eye-witness reporters, there are also cyber lynch mobs, hate mailers and stalkers. As more of my information appears on the Net, more use is made of it, for good or for ill. Increasing Internet identity means increasing identity theft, and whatever I have encrypted, hackers will try to decode. So much so that governments and other organisations often restrict their most secure communications to older technologies, even sending scrolled messages in small capsules through pneumatic pipes. This, of course, fuels the suspicions of Internet conspiracy theorists.

Looking at what have I've gained, I now hear from a greater range of different voices, discover new talents with something to say: niche writers, collectors, musicians and artists. I have access to more books, journal articles, newspapers, tv programs, documentaries and films. Missed something live? It will be on the Web. The greatest proportion of these individuals and outputs were already offering something interesting or important to which the Internet gave worldwide access. Here we have ready-made content for the voracious Internet to consume and display.

But new media have emerged, too, whose content arose for, or on, the Internet: these include blogging, Wikipedia, and YouTube; along with new forms of shared communication, such as Facebook, Google Groups and Twitter. Will these new forms replace the ready-made contents? It's unclear. Amid the bread and circus element to the Internet here is a need for good quality materials, and a means to sort out the wheat from the chaff: garbage in, garbage out, as computer programmers say. It is our choice, some will say, and yet I find myself looking with sheer disbelief or ironic amusement at what people have chosen to put up on the Net. The greatest fascination is bloggers who rather knowingly provide alternative slices of life. Here we have diarists who desire to be intimate with everyone. Those with a distinctive voice and a good theme, have found a following, when worldwide word spreads, the result is usually a contract to publish their output, lightly edited, as a book, which in turn can be read on the Internet.

What of the new Web-dependent phenomena: open access and open source programming, virtual social networking, the co-construction of knowledge? All these are gains and reflect something hopeful: the collaborative effort of our joint endeavour; our willingness to share. The inclusive natures of these phenomena are encouraging. I want to join in and like the idea of making a modest contribution to a larger enterprise. But the new technologies let me witness their distancing and distorting influences: Internet fuelled fantasies where everyone can be a celebrity, or can live through their avatar in virtual reality, or develop alternative personalities in chat rooms — fantasies that someone, somewhere on the Internet is making money from.

How do I cope with the speeded up information age? The overload is overwhelming, but so is my desire to know and not to miss anything. I'm tempted to know a little bit about everything and look for pre-digested, concise, neatly formatted content from reliable sources. My reading habits have changed making me aware of how important well-packaged information has become. It's become necessary to consume thousands of abstracts from scientific journals, doing one's own fast search for what should be read in more detail. Debates seem to be decided at the level of abstracts. Repudiations signalled by the title and a hundred words. The real work, of course, goes on elsewhere but we want the Internet to brings us the results. This leaves me knowing less about more and more. At the same time I am exhilarated by the dizzying effort to make connections and integrate information. Learning is faster. Though the tendency to forge connecting themes can feel dangerously close to the search for patterns that overtakes the mentally ill. Time to slow down and engage in longer study.

The Internet shows me more and more about those who participate in it, but I worry lest I forget that not everything or everyone in the world has a home on the Internet. Missing are those who cannot read or write, who have no access to a computer, or who chose to remain disconnected. There is a danger of coming to think that what cannot be found on an Internet search doesn't exist, and that the virtual world is the world. It isn't. However bizarre and incredible the people populating the Internet are, they are still akin to me, people with knowledge of computers and their applications. Certainly, there is diversity and hierarchy, and vast domains of varied information, but nevertheless, except when Internet users turn their attention on the those who are excluded, or who exclude themselves, a mirror will be held up to those who sustain the information age, and it is only this part of the world I come to have scattered information about.