The rise of disinformation, online abuse and extremism has shown the web isn’t the glowing network of knowledge, community and togetherness we once hoped it could be. Is there a way back?
The past 12 months have been a bumper year for the internet. Several billion people went online far more than they ever imagined. A US presidential election and many elections around the world refocused the spotlight on disinformation, and how it might disrupt a democracy that was already shaken up by internet-fuelled alternative truths.
We’ve witnessed the rise of cults, the demise of advertising, and the erosion of our mental health. By this account, it’s not been a bumper year for humanity.
The pioneers of the internet never thought their invention would be at the centre of a global re-think.
The internet project was famously funded by the US government, but its first use was to connect universities so they could share information. At its heart, this is what the internet continues to be used for today: it creates connections between people to share news, photos of cats and countless memes. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen it evolve from a functional space of academic collaboration, to a place where people could find one another, to a battleground for hearts and minds.
Computing historian Melvin Kranzberg once wrote, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” This, his first ‘law’, is particularly applicable to the history of the internet. “Technical developments frequently have environmental, social and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices,” he wrote in 1986. He believed that many of the issues we have with technology are unanticipated outcomes from implementing them on a massive scale. They may produce benefits — creating rich connections, transforming economies, holding power to account, empowering the disenfranchised — but they can also expose the nasty stuff, like exploitation, cruelty and malicious manipulation.
We are at a turning point with the information architecture of our global world. After the year we’ve had, no one can claim technological ignorance. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to embrace the tools and learn first-hand what the internet really is doing to us. With that knowledge, we have a choice. We can continue with a broken status quo, or we can change the future.
So, armed with enough knowledge, what do we have to do to take control and make the internet great again?