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The Internet makes censorship impossible and will bring down corrupt regimes around the world. It will lead to an era of absolute transparency, which will inevitably lead to more equality and more justice. Disagree? Try this, then – the Internet means none of us need to know anything, because we can look anything up in a matter of moments. We’re all becoming stupid because the machines do all of our thinking for us.
Which of these arguments are correct? Time will tell, but if the past is anything to go by neither prediction will ultimately come true. So long as humans have created new things we’ve predicted fantastic and terrible things about them. It’s true of the web, and it’s true of many technologies from our past.
Machine Guns Will Make War Impossible
Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun, was asked in 1893 whether his creation will make wars more terrible.
“No,” he responded. “it will make war impossible.”
The First World War – and the advent of trench warfare – would ultimately prove this prediction wrong. It’s a great example of how hard it is to predict how any given technology will be used – even for the person who created it. Maxim sincerely thought his invention would be so effective on the battlefield that no one would bother to fight a war again.
He was wrong. But it’s not the only time a given technology was predicted to end war forever only to become a part of war.
“The invention of aircraft will make war impossible in the future,” British novelist George Gissing said in 1903.
It didn’t, of course – planes only led to a new, airborne kind of war.
Radio Will Bring About World Peace
And it’s not only weapons that were predicted to end wars. Communication technologies were too.
“The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous,” said Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of radio, in 1912. One hundred years of warfare between then and now, and it seems anything but ridiculous.
But Marconi’s point isn’t ridiculous – any technology that makes it easier to spread ideas makes it easier to sympathize with others. War is less tolerated today than it was one hundred years ago, and part of that is the media.
But the wireless era has clearly not been one without war. Technology can do amazing things; what it can’t do is solve our problems for us. War will end when humans manage to get along, and technology alone will never cause that to happen.
Similar utopian hope today exists about the web – many believe total access to information alone will solve problems. But information alone isn’t enough – people need to act based on it or there is no impact.
Writing Will Make Us All Stupid
You’ve heard the argument before – the Internet is making us stupid. We’re spending more time looking at pictures of cats and less time actually thinking. Social networks are making us self-centered, distracting us and distorting our definition of friend. People don’t read anything with any depth anymore.
Worries like this are by no means unique to our time, however. New technologies have been seen as upending traditional mental faculties for thousands of years. For example – the written word. The act of writing changed the ancient world in a way you could easily compare to the Internet’s affect on ours, and it also was criticized for encouraging bad habits.
“Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” a character explains in Plato’s Phaedrus. “They will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources.”
Sounds familiar, right? A new technology is making us stupid by doing things we previously did with our minds. Writing gave us a new ability, but having this ability caused most people (not all) to rely less on their own memory.
Of course, we only know Plato said this because of the written word – and far fewer people would have read and discussed Carr’s piece if it were only available on the paper pages of The Atlantic. But the point here isn’t to point out ironies. To me the lesson here is that every new technology offers advantages but also comes at a cost.
But these costs are optional. The written word doesn’t mean we can’t use our memories. It only means we need to decide to do so. And the web doesn’t mean we can’t read books or think deeply.
Bad Predictions Are The Norm
Of course, it’s easy to dig up terrible predictions about technology.
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told USA Today in 2007. “None.”
See? Easy. And I can keep going.
“The iPhone’s impact on our business will be minimal,” RIM (Blackberry) CEO Jim Balsillie said, also in 2007.
You can dig up similarly confident quotes about almost anything, and anyone who pays attention to the news hears predictions like these constantly. Most of them turn out to be wrong, and are forgotten.
So to speculate that the Internet is going to make us all dumb or solve all of our problems is just that: speculation.
When asked in the late 1960’s about the significance of the French Revolution, Chinese President Zhou Enlai famously said it was too soon to say. The exact intention of the quote is disputed, but a message rings true for me: human history is far too complex a thing to distill into broad-sweeping statements, no matter how badly we want to distill it.
So when you hear techno-idealists proclaim that the Internet will bring about a brilliant era of peace and prosperity, question it. When you hear others state that the Internet will destroy our ability to think rationally and will lead to a LOLcat-flavored doomsday, question it.
20 years ago most people didn’t know what The Internet was. Journalists seemed at a loss to accurately describe it.
Now this network of computers is part of all our lives. What will that mean in the future? I don’t know. The Internet is far too young for anyone to accurately say. 20 years from now it might be locked down by governments, or it might stay the free-flowing medium it is today. It might be replaced by an ad-hoc network free from meddling by ISPs, or it might be offered free to everyone by Google (with ads, of course).
The most accurate prediction anyone can make about technology is that most predictions will turn out to be wrong. And that’s okay – we’ll all find out what happens together. I know I’m looking forward to it.