Earlier this month, the online edition of Telegraph published an article under the title “50 things that are being killed by the Internet.” Some of the items listed could not solely be attributed to the Internet, but the Internet has contributed and brought them to light (e.g., not paying for music or wanting free but authoritative reference works), and other items are signs of progress (e.g., moving from printed fanzines to online ones). But all that aside, the Internet and the World Wide Web do have tremendous influence on the way we live, work, play and learn.
Probably one of the most profound changes is attitude toward facts and information (number 13 on Telegraph’s original list). Having a school-aged daughter, I can see the emphasis that is placed on combining information and reaching conclusions rather than just memorizing facts. Schools assume that our kids have access to the Internet and are able to navigate it to search for information. And the best thing of all is that kids can do that, and how confident they are in their voyages across cyberspace! Obviously we still have to know some facts, as the Internet is not that ubiquitous, but it was not easy to convince my daughter that she must memorize multiplication tables when she has a perfectly functional calculator. Things are changing and they are changing fast. We can also perceive a shape of the things to come, and the changes they will bring will be even more monumental.
Just take a look at some of the new toys and games that are being developed and you can get a sense of what is coming. One example is Mattel’s “Mind Flex”, or the game controller from Emotiv (hairstyle is not mandatory!). Very soon we will start having a new generation of children who are used to interacting with their toys and computers just by using their minds. Computer voice interaction a la Star Trek would be so quaint.
Another thing that the Internet has brought to light is how people are social beings. That in itself is not a surprise, but it is interesting to observe the level of interaction taking place on social websites, and how people from all corners of the world are coming together to interact. Borders are forgotten, race is unimportant, as is social status (and nobody knows that I am a dog). Friendships and marriages are made there, and business partnerships are forged.
We organize our work in such a way that it is done by the best person at the best price. The country in which that person lives is immaterial, and whether the work is done in an office, garage or while lying on a sofa is inconsequential. What a move we’ve made from huge offices where everyone had to go in each morning and where a third of the people were just carrying papers from one desk to another.
Yes, there are some dangers out there, and not all people have good intentions. Others may wish good but are doing harm, and we would be foolish to ignore them. Every new invention that humankind has delivered has at some time been misused in some way to cause harm. The Internet is not an exception in that respect, and we must learn how to deal with changed landscape and new or modified threats.
Privacy is something that has suffered a lot. Many organizations collect information about you and make it available on the Internet. Then there is the issue of aggregation. Different organizations may only make a small amount of information public, and although this may be innocuous in isolation, aggregated it can reveal much more about you than you ever wanted. This threat existed before, but the Internet has made this aggregation easier than ever before. And yet in many cases it is us who are doing this to ourselves. People are putting all sorts of personal information on the Web and it is becoming easier and easier to impersonate someone. Never before was it possible to so easily see who went with us on holiday, where we have been, and what we have done. Descriptions, pictures and movies are all available to everyone. Scott McNealy’s saying, “You have no privacy. Get over it.” is now even more true than it was before.
If you want new threats, then how about subcutaneous implants? Professor Kevin Warwick from Reading University in the UK is known for his experiments in this area. The new threat here is that someone may connect to you and literally start controlling your body. Similarly, after mind-to-computer interface becomes more widespread, I would not discount the possibility that someone will find a way to inject impulses into your brain and start controlling your thoughts. That would be a holy grail for all marketing people out there!
In most cases, however, people have found a way to harness the good side of inventions and use them to prosper. But there are also people who are afraid of change and will do anything to try to push back the tide. We must be aware of them, as they, out of ignorance and not malice, may do harm not only to themselves but to others too. But despite that, change is moving. Probably nobody today would like that we reintroduce horses instead of cars, but when cars were fast on their way to replacing horses, there were many who were trying to stop the process. They failed. Trying to stop the spreading of the knowledge, mobility, and flexibility that comes with the Internet will fail too.
Now if we could only do something about time zones so that I do not have to stay awake at night to talk to my colleagues in the US…