From its inception up until now, the internet has enjoyed a good reputation. The reason is simple. Access has empowered individuals to gather and transmit information in ways that were impossible before. Life has become better.
But there is a catch. The catch is that the internet does not guarantee the quality of the information that it provides. Indeed, quality levels are pretty much out of control. There is no pilot flying the plane. And therefore, the internet is not benign. It is not “looking out for you”. It is not “on your side”. It is on the side of whoever can get and hold attention with the content that they spread. — whether that content is true or false or benign or malignant.
BTW; you might think of this as the logical next step from 20th century broadcast media. Radio, movies and TV gave broadcasting a certain cache and glamour. The glamour had nothing to do with reality. For example, in real life, Cary Grant lamented that he was not really Cary Grant at all, but just an actor whose real name was Archibald Leach (Archibald? Really?), whose claim to fame was just that he was good at depicting the Cary Grant character — if given the wardrobe and the clever lines. He suffered greatly because his real life did not match up well with the fantasy life that he was so good at depicting. And in case you might have forgotten, Americans elected a movie actor to be president. Why? Well … he did look so good on TV. What a nice man! Did his political message make sense? Who cares! He made us feel good! Morning in America!
So it is not overly surprising that given half a chance, we would all start broadcasting. Mea culpa! We would all like to bask in the glow of adulation that media stars have enjoyed.And so, we broadcast more, and perhaps listen and think less than we might.
The sobering reality is that all of this broadcasting does not appear to be making us any smarter. If you wish to dispute this, then explain how one Donald Trump was elected president. At least we do not appear to be getting smarter yet. And to the contrary, there are disturbing signs that at least some of us are using the internet to manipulate and misinform. Perhaps we are about to get dumber!
Borrowing that great line from Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic!” This abuse of media is nothing new. Manipulating and misinforming the populace has been part of the dark arts of politics for as long as public speakers could address audiences. “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”. Or picking ,more recent examples at random, how about the famous Kennedy “missile gap”? Did Jack really make that up? Oh dear! And did FDR deliberately provoke the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor? Oh dear! And did Nixon really not have a secret plan to end the Vietnam war back in1968? Oh dear! You get the idea.
What is new is the tool. The internet is just a new channel. We, as humans, are basically the same. So before we throw up our hands in despair over the demise of humanity because internet searches offer nasty messaging about Jews, blacks and democrats, we might reflect that this messaging may have been far more malignant in the past. And the internet can also be used to empower people. Facebook and Google are indeed powerful, and can be abused, but they are not ubiquitous. They cannot stop anyone from creating and using better platforms that empower people more than they do.
And I suspect that we will see these platforms.
FOLLOW UP – An interesting quote from Moises Naim – “Power has become easier to get but harder to use or keep”.. We are beginning to see “movements” empowered around a cause emerge as the engine for social change – at the expense of institutions.