Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Internet: a citizen's view

The Internet was originally developed by the US Department of Defense during the Cold War. International packet switched networks were devised. These enabled messages to be transmitted between any two points on the network even if parts of it had been destroyed in a nuclear attack. Later, a CERN physicist called Tim Berners Lee wrote the World Wide Web software enabling the exchange of  text and images.

Once the web was fully operational it became the domain of idealists:  hippies and cyber-libertarians. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organisations emerged to oversee it; and in 1996 John Perry Barlow, a lyricist with the Grateful Dead,  wrote the Declaration of the independence of cyberspace.

Without this initial idealism and the freedom from government interference it is doubtful whether the following benefits would have happened so quickly:

  • Wikipedia  – a truly unique knowledge resource.
  • Augmentation of parliamentary democracy (e.g. in the UK the ‘38 degrees’ online petition service).
  • Data exchange worldwide, allowing problems to be tackled more powerfully and quickly. (e.g. in biomolecular and climate change models).
  • Business productivity improvements.
  • Consumer choice and convenience.
  • Citizens and professionals are able to cooperate in ways previously unimaginable (e.g. in climate, astronomical and wildlife monitoring using the processing power of thousands of home PCs).
  • Medical treatments have been enormously improved and made widely known to patients.

Unfortunately, the web has over the last decade or so been subject to negative influences arising from the  shortcomings of human nature and the absence of adequate regulation by nation states or international bodies:

  • Spam (e.g. 75% of the world’s emails are spam) and obtrusive advertising.
  • Hacking for profit or malice or fun. Even the latter can waste enormous amounts of time, including that of the hacker who could be doing something useful (e.g. removing grafitti).
  • Fragmentation of society as news, information, comment, analysis, art, literature, music and entertainment are increasingly tailored to the individual.
  • Curtailment of some mental faculties, such as the building of an internalised body of knowledge, although others may be improved (e.g. reaction speeds, multitasking).
  • Divorcement from reality by excessive concentration on fantasy games as well as games masquerading as realistic when in fact they rely on the author’s particular model of a subset of reality.
  • Fraud and the undermining of the financial system.
  • Propagation of evil values outside the law and widely accepted mores of most nation states or the UN etc, (e.g. paedophile rings, child prostitution, slander, certain kinds of theft).
  • Mind control by totalitarian states (e.g. China, North Korea and most states in the Middle East) able to block or restrict foreign access.

The Internet itself and the devices connected to it are functioning less effectively as the quest for profit wins over the original ideals, while these very ideals are used as an excuse for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and others to prevent nations and supranational bodies from interfering with their right to profit, even if this has a downside for users: intrusive advertising, loss of privacy, social inequalities of access, dysfunctionality arising from incompatible technologies (e.g. wars between browsers and operating systems) or over-concentration on immediate profits (e.g. deterioration of an existing system in the rush to start up a  new money spinner) and the prevention of innovation from newcomers.

Also, I’m not an expert in IT, but I get the impression that bandwidth is being unwisely allocated on a free market basis, with corporations buying bocks of channel capacity from the internet service providers. There is only a finite amount of channel capacity in the network while its 2 billion user-base is growing fast. TV programmes and movies hog a large amount of channel capacity, yet can be broadcast or sold on DVDs. Consequently, important Internet uses in education, business, science, medicine, public services and leisure get slowed down or made unreliable.

So in my view it is time for international and state interference, so that the full potential of the Internet miracle can be realised.

Feedback welcome.

Author, 2077 AD