What You Should Think About the Internet

November 25, 2007

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.”

–Andy Rooney

Depending on your perspective, my experience with the Internet either makes me a grizzled oldtimer or a young upstart. When I completed my first professional Web design job, the total number of Internet hosts was less than 40,00 (I seem to recall watching the original Virtual Tourist* clear 10,000 sites just after registering my current employer there.) Erudite scholars dominated online discussions, and .com was not even in the top three most popular generic top-level domains. On the other hand, I first accessed the Internet on a dial-up bulletin board during the late 80s, and I did not so much as monitor an e-mail account until 1994.

I offer up this information to clarify a distinction increasingly lost on users. The Internet evolved out of computer networks conceived in the 50s, planned in the 60s, and actually connected from late 1969 onward. For many years these networks remained dominated by the academics and military personnel for whom they were envisioned. Long before computers were remotely “user friendly,” key Pentagon personnel understood that research, development, and planning related to national security would be enhanced by a communications network that would let experts share data without ever converting that data into any sort of physical document.

For some reason, right through the 1980s, few organizations saw the potential for this same sort of data sharing to help with activities that were not chiefly scientific, intellectual, or logistical. Services resembling e-mail were becoming available from various vendors, and the Internet itself provided an infrastructure for much of that traffic. Yet it would take major advances in graphical user interfaces, both in terms of computer operations and Internet usage, before the ‘net would go mainstream.

In rapid succession, key elements fell into place. Apple’s Macintosh computer line brought the mouse-driven desktop to a much larger number of users. In its own much less elegant way, Microsoft would make the hordes of IBM-compatible PCs already in circulation accessible to users who were uncomfortable with old command line interfaces. Both the original Macintosh System software and early Windows products also made use of hypertext — an innovation in which words or illustrations might also be tagged so as to function as links to other (presumably related) electronic documents.

By this time the Internet was already a global collaboration. Researchers abroad did not want to be shut out of this American hub of knowledge, and the value of their contributions clearly outweighed any potential security risk. Thus it was that many of Europe’s leading nuclear physicists, working within an organization called CERN, became prominent Internet users. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, an Oxford-educated hacker working with CERN developed a protocol for transmitting hypertext files over the Internet. In implementing this protocol he created the World Wide Web.

My experience with the growth of the Web suggests strong parallels to Las Vegas. A place that was once downright tranquil and serene is now cluttered with flashing lights and eyecatching signs promoting gambling or displays of nudity. Yet the high profile way in which strippers and casinos have emerged on the Web is itself a parallel to the rise of online commerce. In hindsight, it seems silly so many early Web users shared my crestfallen response to the fact that poker and nipples generate greater public interest than epistemology and astrophysics.

The time before that transformation saw much greater restraint and civility online. Spam was practically non-existent. Though ‘net culture was distinctively ivory tower, it was also distinctively respectful of the value provided by an unspoiled public commons. Early spammers had little prospect of reaching the kind of gullible consumers that generate profits for their operations, but they had an excellent chance of being denied access by service providers sensitive to complaints about unsolicited mailings.

The condescension in the phrase “unwashed masses” can be hard to shake for anyone who witnessed the transition from a Web of educated seekers of knowledge to a Web of pretty much everyone inhabiting a modernized society. Of course online participation is not 100% even in nations with the good sense to heavily subsidize network infrastructure development. However, at this point the role of deep thinkers in shaping the modern Internet is more apparent in the legacy of pioneering efforts than in the general tone of contemporary content.

As I reviewed potential epigrams for this piece, I noticed one interesting trend. The more heavily involved in politics a particular personality happens to be, the more inclined he or she is to conclude that the Internet is populated predominantly by immature idiotic loudmouths. To some degree this could be an “eye of the beholder” phenomenon. People who use the Internet for shopping and travel planning while relying chiefly on print and broadcast sources of news may have no idea the extent of public political discourse, past and present, online. By contrast, editors and columnists known to thrive on opinionated clash may venture online only to find that the electronic publication of profoundly ignorant remarks is, time and time again, met with a chorus of outright adulation.

Because bulletin board discussions, Wikipedia edits, blogs, et al. typically take place under cover of a pseudonym, prohibitively childish or dogmatic participants in a potential exchange of ideas can only be identified by verbal expression. If it is not human nature, it certainly is in the nature of a great many thinkers (myself included) to be persistent in clash once it is underway. By the time behavior reveals another party to a dispute is disingenuous, incompetent, or otherwise unproductive in discourse, a context has been created in which withdrawal seems like, or may even be interpreted as, some sort of defeat.

Cynics about the value of online discourse since the mainstreaming of the Web certainly have a point. Yet I believe withdrawing from clashes with the hopelessly foolish should not extend so far as to involve withdrawing from the medium entirely. The trick is to seek out the useful and avoid the useless. Freedom of expression and social conformity have interesting, and not entirely positive, roles to play in online discourse. It used to take a little real money and a lot of real effort to maintain a newsletter for some nutty group rallied around beliefs rightly ostracized from mainstream media. Now communications far superior to a humble newsletter are freely available, plus outreach and distribution efforts require much less labor.

The end result is thousands upon thousands of cloisters in which people who have an emotional connection to bizarre beliefs can take satisfaction from presenting crude half-baked analysis while earning wholehearted congratulations in return. More insidious than any partisan noise machine, these little (and sometimes not-so-little) groups create effective sanctuaries for misinformation and ignorance. Suddenly holding the belief that Jesus and dinosaurs were contemporary is transformed from cause for ridicule to cause for celebration. Bunker mentalities intensify the desire to participate vigorously in the chorus of a false narrative.

Yet there are alternatives. Some places online do serve as havens for unbridled exchanges of ideas where the local culture accommodates real challenges to prevailing views. Such resources are few and far between, as there is a fine line between welcoming intelligent dissent and tolerating the inflammatory nonsense of ideologues trapped in “mental brick wall” mode. Then there are the countless sites where real dialog is theoretically possible, but not practical amidst the incessant chatter of participants who have nothing to contribute beyond unfunny one-liners or terse emotional reactions to a subject. Still, if you have something to say, there are plenty of places online to say it. If you manage to say it in an interesting way and you manage to be at least a little bit lucky, you might even see your words carry beyond the deaf ears of living Internet clichés.

*Today it is hard to find so much as a mention of the old Virtual Tourist, but it was something like the Google Earth of its time (that time predating Google entirely.) The project served up simple maps to convey a geographical sense of where every server on the Internet was located in the physical world. Today it seems like a travel commerce site has all but wiped away memories of the original Virtual Tourist, but I’m confident other Webheads of the early to mid 90s will have some memory of it.