Would We Be Better Off Without the Internet?

July 5, 2013

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“If I could, I would repeal the Internet,” wrote Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson on June 30. “It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not – as most people imagine – a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it.”

When “the Internet” heard this news, it didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or get really pissed off. The Internet is the opposite of progress!? Them’s fighting words! Pretty bold talk from a writer who has been covering business and economic affairs for nearly four decades. You wanna repeal the Internet? Why not uninvent the Gutenberg printing press, while you’re at it?

Samuelson cites the danger of cyberwarfare as his primary reason for wanting to roll back the tide. The Internet has created “new avenues for conflict and mayhem,” he writes, and even though we can’t point to a whole lot of lives lost as a result of the Internet, well, it could happen!

Samuelson has been justly mocked for his fear-mongering. As many have pointed out, all new technologies bring with them the potential for chaos and trouble. Imagine how much mass slaughter we could have avoided without the Industrial Revolution? And why stop there? I’ve heard it argued that the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agriculture made possible social stratification and theocratic despotism. Agriculture: We would be better of without it. Repeal grain!

But I am not here to make fun of Robert Samuelson. When he moderates his thesis, in his last paragraph, and states that “The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated.” I find myself nodding my head. There is new evidence, every day, of the mixed blessings delivered by the Internet. Just to pick one example from current headlines: The vast advances in government surveillance capability that we’ve all been wringing our hands about lately are directly attributable to the fact that our lives are now inextricably lived online. No question, the sharing economy has a dark side.

Of course, the notion of repealing the Internet is ludicrous. The most gaping hole in Samuelson’s column is his failure to identify any meaningful plan of action that would progressively address the changes wrought by “The Internet.” “If I could repeal the Internet I would, but I can’t, so I’ll just whine” is a terrible excuse for a column. But even on this point, I feel sympathy for Samuelson, because progressively addressing the downsides of “the Internet” is miserably difficult. Even when we think we know what we should do – in the case of surveillance, tougher privacy laws – it’s not clear that our solution will actually fix anything.

* * *

I might be predisposed to take Samuelson more seriously than the rest of “the Internet” because the grand narrative of change wrought by the Internet on society feels increasingly personal. A few days ago, I attended a gathering at a San Francisco watering hole held in honor of Tim Redmond, a longtime fixture of progressive Bay Area journalism. He had recently been fired from his position as editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian – a direct result of a recent change in ownership at the venerable local weekly. My first job in journalism was at the Bay Guardian, so even though it had been literally decades since I hung out with the Guardian crowd, I decided to stop by.

Maybe I was trying to assuage my guilt. In January 1994, I quit the Guardian to devote myself to writing full-time about the Internet for anyone who would pay me. My last cover story for the Guardian was a pre-World Wide Web tutorial: “How to Connect to the Internet.” You want to blame someone for hyping the Internet? I am available.

Republished with permission from: AlterNet