Thoughts on the InternetMay 15th, 2010 at 13:39
I am trying to come to grips with this profound new institution which seems likely to be as transforming for society in the 21st Century as movable type was in the 16th. It struck me just now that no institution in our contemporary society has been more significant in my own development over the past ten years than this many-ways-connected network of computer servers originally designed to be a communication channel most likely to survive a nuclear war. In fact, I think it has played this primary developmental role for my partner Sally and our now young-adult kids as well, and I suspect that it has quickly established itself as a critical tool of human evolution.
The implementation of television in the 1950s led media philosophers in the next decade like Marshall McLuhan to herald “the cool fire” as the harbinger of the “global village”. TV brought us the moon walk, the Vietnam War, and a myriad of other live events with a compelling visual and visceral “reality” (adding images to do radio one better) that print media (inherently published after the fact) could not deliver. But though television brought a world of sound and moving images into homes and other intimate settings all over the world, it lacked the two-way communication that makes a village a true community.
The Internet took those intimate verbal communications between individuals, first stretched beyond physical localities by the telephone, to truly world-wide reach. Though phones eventually became ubiquitous in homes and businesses around the world, a phone call from the US to the other side of the Earth through most of the 20th Century was a prohibitive expense that severely limited its use. But when our daughter Emma went to Australia two years ago, we were able to talk with her (image and spoken words) half way across the world over the Net using Skype for no cost beyond the money we had already invested in a computer and a monthly charge for a hookup to the wire.
The letter and the telegram, delivered by a massive infrastructures of staffed offices and home delivery, allowed for asynchronous communication exchanges within a matter of days and weeks for the former and hours or minutes for the latter. But the electronic mail that the Internet facilitated allowed these messages to jump back and forth in minutes or even seconds without the incremental expense (of stamp or charge) to deliver each message.
And further the electronically posted message could be privately directed to one individual or any number of indicated addressees. Further it could be posted on forums or distributed via “listservs” to larger communities of readers to create multi-connected conversations and collaborations whose participants could be literally anywhere in the world. And as computerized devices got smaller and could leverage wireless communication, there were fewer and fewer places that were beyond the reach of this communication. You no longer had to travel to or be at the communication station, it came with you in a satchel, purse or pocket.
For me, participating in an alternative education listserv starting in 2005 gave me the opportunity (via exchanged emails between maybe 100 participants in this virtual “forum” around the world) to engage in an extended discussion about alternatives to the conventional educational model of schooling. In mostly one to several paragraph messages, we presented our thoughts, read, and responded to the thoughts of others. Over the next few years I probably wrote hundreds of these emails on dozens of related topics, developing the clarity of my own ideas and kindling a desire to write and share them with others.
I also made friends and other connections in the process (people who I had never physically met or even spoken to) which inspired me to attend the yearly conference sponsored by the small organization (AERO) that sponsored the listserv. Attending my first conference opened an entire world for me and gave me a path forward in my life to address a mid-life crisis that was brewing. I would never have gone to that conference or finally broken through the self-imposed obstacles to becoming a writer without the Internet. If nothing else, it gave me an audience (small as it was) for my writing, which made all the difference.
I could cite at length similar stories of how my partner Sally got into alternative healing and how my kids got into the areas that are there consuming interests today and found friends and comrades who share those interests. (See my piece, “Massive Multi-Player on the World Wide Web”.)
Let’s talk about the storage and retrieval of knowledge. Through most of the 20th Century the bulk of stored knowledge was in books, magazines, newspapers and stored paper (and later celluloid microfiche) and later in audio-visual media of phonograph records, celluloid film and magnetic tape. Besides actually doing the actual thought, creative and editorial work creating the artifact; many additional resources were invested in printing, storing, distributing and storing again “hard” copies of the artifact.
Given that, I’ll acknowledge in passing that there is something elegantly minimalist about a printed tract, particularly when formatted say as a small paperback book that weighs just a couple ounces and might fit in your purse or pocket, and requires no power source to read other than light from the sun, electric light or a candle.
These media were suitable enough for storage (the work was generally well preserved for hundreds of years) but tremendously difficult in the retrieval. The card catalogs and periodical guides of libraries were at best slow and difficult to use and required a lot of human and other infrastructure to keep them from going out of date. Though a desired bit of past wisdom could often be found, it might take days, weeks, months or even years of search to do so.
A key here I believe, is that this lengthy and cumbersome retrieval process made it hard to weave research into the informal learning process of daily life. When I was kid, I was curious at times about electricity and magnetism, but I would have to invest a lot of time to first find a book about it, make sure it had the information I was looking for, and then navigate table of contents, index and/or just flipping the pages to find what I wanted. Lacking someone in my life that was knowledgeable in this area, I often would give up and move on to other interests that were more easily satisfied.
This cumbersome retrieval process made it particularly important to have trained information gatekeepers, like writers, librarians, and especially teachers, to retrieve, package and present information to young people. But as a result, the things that I was intrinsically interested in learning were often replaced by the things that these gatekeepers had prepared to give to me based on what they thought I needed or wanted to know, and the entire paradigm shift that that implies.
With the Internet existing knowledge retrieval is facilitated by creating “soft” copies of manuscripts, images, audio and video and storing them on computer databases that are then linked together by wires, electronic routers and other facilitating hardware and software to form a worldwide retrieval network. Further, the invention of the browser and the implementation of standard display protocols (think HTML, Adobe Acrobat and the PDF, to name a few) and “web crawler” computer programs (which are constantly working to more fully categorize all the information that is stored on these networked computers around the world) leverage that connective infrastructure.
One hundred years ago, what percentage of the broad range of perspectives and the wisdom of the human race was actually captured for posterity compared to what is possible today? Doesn’t this change make possible (though maybe not inevitable) a more robust ongoing human evolutionary process with the lessened possibility of future “dark ages” where gained knowledge is lost, restricted or not as widely accumulated.
Beyond communication and knowledge management there are all the emerging social networking applications that allow friends, families and people who share a dizzying array of affinities to stay connected with each other beyond face to face encounters. For so many people I know (scattered around the country or even the world) with whom I rarely or never have the opportunity to spend time with in person, I can keep up with their lives’ narratives on Facebook or Geni or some other such site.
And as they say in the TV commercials, “But wait… there’s so much more!” There are a myriad of other existing applications and potential ones that are waiting for humankind to further fathom and become adept with this technology.
All that said, I would be remiss not to call out danger in this explosion of access to communication, connection, knowledge and more. The many human requirements surrounding touch and physical proximity can get short shrift, be overwhelmed and pushed out by the seemingly limitless possibilities of more remote “virtual” connections. If we have friends around the world but don’t know are neighbors are we well served? Might we also develop a certain narcissism or even hubris based on our access to so much?
Well that’s my short and probably inadequate disclaimer… back to the wonder fest!
Most of us take the wide range of present capabilities and future possibilities of the “Net” for granted now, but it is an amazing infrastructure, based on a decentralized architecture that facilitates thousands of entities around the world continuing to enhance this knowledge network. And it is all done with no little or no centralized governance, and is in fact a beautifully effective anarchic institution, that continues to grow and mature tapping the skills of paid experts but many many more impassioned volunteers. What other more informal forms of organization, based on the Internet model, might also be facilitated by this technology?
In the 16th Century, the invention of movable type and the printed word created the technical underpinning for people to widely share their wisdom and opinions in books and more immediate pamphlets, newspapers and other periodicals, and are credited by historians in facilitating the rise of popular movements and the nation-state.
The question today is how are the inventions that make up the infrastructure of the Internet going to impact how we organize our lives and the further development of individual human beings and human society as a whole? How are we going to use these new capabilities to enhance our evolution yet find a human scale of balance in our lives?
I could go on and on… but I will hold the rest of the thoughts tumbling out of my head for future pieces. Suffice it to say that the Net is a really big deal, and may even rise to a metaphysical significance (“seek and ye shall find” for one) akin to the things people get from religion or other “spiritual” practices.
Oops!… I said I would hold the rest of those thoughts!
Tags: anarchism and the internet, Internet and anarchism, internet and evolution, internet and society, internet and transformation, printing to the internet, significance of the internet, the internet and ordinary life