Is The Internet Frankenstein's Monster?

It is only thanks to the Internet that when Paul Saffo, a consulting professor at Stanford, says “Heraclitus put it eloquently over two millennia ago: ‘Nothing new comes into our lives without a hidden curse’” — you can quickly find out that Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of the city of Ephesus, then part of the Persian Empire. Also that he said, perhaps more famously, "There is nothing permanent except change."

Saffo was participating in a much larger discussion on whether the Internet is a good or bad thing. (His bottom line: "We are in for a wild period of disorder, but beyond is a sunny upland.")

Between fake news, questionable privacy practices and the concern (voiced by many who helped launch it) that that many aspects of the Internet are not healthy — especially for kids —  we are bound to see more debate. The question: Is the Frankenstein we created a terrible beast — or, at heart, a gentle giant?



Is the Internet bringing out the best in us, or the worst?

Because for now (until AI really arrives) the Internet is simply a series of cable, routers and computers, and there is nothing inherently evil about it. My elder son, Will, likens it to a car — which in itself is not a dangerous object, until you put an idiot behind the wheel. But that is the point of the argument now: Have we put too many idiots behind too many wheels?

I don't have the space to list everything that’s good about the Internet  —and you already know what they are.  Nor do I have the space to list everything that has gone wrong with too many idiots behind too many wheels.

But now that we have entire generations effectively addicted to digital communications (for simplicity, I include mobile apps and functions as part of the internet) we have to pause and ask, is this thing trending in a positive or negative direction?

I was an early adopter (can even remember those 2,400-baud modems), and soon found the internet indispensable for getting information, taking the pain out of preparing work materials and expediting communications. As more entities came online, it was like someone handed you a magic wand. With one wave of your hand, not only could you produce information, but entertainment, timing-wasting games, chat groups, porn — and communication with people like you, no matter how weird or distasteful your world view. When e-commerce hit, the world changed unalterably.

It the early days, you had to really work to find the bad guys, who tended to stay in their echo chambers and amuse each other. Now they are everywhere.

Moreover, we have found that some we thought were good guys — thinking Facebook here — are helping the bad guys bleed into your everyday life online, or are perhaps bad guys in their own way.

How many accounts have we read of people who "went off the grid" and rediscovered the joys of direct personal communication, reading books again, and the tranquility of life away from the screens? That these accounts are the exception shows just how tied we are to the little internets in our pockets (I still have a desktop, but am kind of a dinosaur in that way).

Says Will, "I think it really comes down to engaging consciously and carefully. Twitter, for example, can be toxic, shallow, stupid garbage — or it can be a really amazing place where you see insightful, intelligent folks, even sometimes experts, trade ideas and have positive discourse."

He is right, of course. But you don't have to be a victim of fake news -- or have one of your kids crushed by something said about them in social media, or listen to Facebook's attempt to justify its user data policies -- for feeling that we have taken a downward turn from which there may be no recovery.

1 comment about "Is The Internet Frankenstein's Monster?".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, April 21, 2018 at 1:26 a.m.

    George, you gave me a chuckle when you mentioned as an early adopter you remembered 2,400-baud modems.

    Well, (ummmmm, now I am dobbing myself in) my first modem was an acoustic coupler which consisted of a set of "Mickey Mouse" ears inside a very stylishly made gold-coloured anodised aluminium with wooden end-plates, into which you placed the handset of your landline 'phone.   But the GOOD thing about it was that it was dual-speed - 75-baud if you wanted a stable connection and 300-baud for blisteringly fast speeds!   And yep, it's somewhere down in my garage

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