It’s pointless to blame the Internet for irreversibly changing our lives, says Koli Mitra. After all, we have a long history of letting technology impact us in ways we cannot quite fathom or control.
There is an ancient technology called “text”: a visual representation of an idea or object, often by way of an intermediate set of symbols called “words”, which are phonetic representations of a thought or object. Humans built up this technology, gradually, over millennia. Sometimes, specialised developers with social influence launched new protocols for its use. At other times, it developed in a more organic and widely participatory, “open-source” manner. We don’t know exactly how it evolved, although some landmark inventions, like the printing press, clearly catalysed its explosive growth. Soon, reading and writing became standard. If you couldn’t, you suddenly became redefined as an imbecile. Common sense, social intelligence and some practical skills were no longer enough to make you a valued member of society.
I would bet that a few centuries ago, when literacy was still a rare and specialised skill, nobody could have guessed how pervasive it would come to be in everyday life. Nobody could have guessed that knowing how to reproduce or decipher the written word would become such a basic requirement of life that anyone unable to master the skill would be rendered socially and economically dysfunctional, regardless of any talent he or she might have for ploughing fields, weaving cloth, or domesticating animals. Neither would they imagine that, while this ability would become essential for survival, it would also lose its value as a marketable skill. In other words, literacy would no longer be anything special, but it would also no longer be optional.
Something similar is happening now. The digital divide is reducing many people to functional illiteracy. Literacy, however, took a long time to be standardised, and its growth happened concurrently with technologies that made it readily and cheaply available to people. Moreover, it was fairly low-tech to pass on to the next generation. Even when paper and ink were extravagantly expensive, you could still teach someone to write using almost any marking implement on almost any surface. By contrast, computers—and now the Internet connection—require equipment of some sophistication and cost more than most people in the world can afford.
Something similar is happening now. The digital divide is reducing many people to functional illiteracy.
What accounts for the harsher social cost of digital literacy over textual literacy? The obvious answer is the technological difference. The nature of the Internet, what resources it requires, and what we can do with it, are simply different from reading and writing on physical media. But don’t we have something to do with it? Just because something can be done, must it be done, regardless of the consequences?
***All of human civilisation has been an experiment in flinging ourselves into the unknown, sometimes recklessly. The current mass foray into the Internet is no different. Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said the Internet is “the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.” It’s a pretty common sentiment. And it “feels” right, somehow. But it’s not true. Truth is, humans have almost never fully understood the things they have set in motion.
One could argue that previous human technologies—everything from the wheel to the internal combustion engine—are well understood by people with the right training. But if you think of the Internet merely as “technology” comparable to things like engines, then you have to think of it as hardware, software, network servers, file transfer protocols, machine language, coding languages, platforms, applications, electrical signals, and transmission technology: things that a lot of people actually do understand. Granted, most users have no clue about any of it, but how many people who drive cars know anything about engines? Do you know how a camera works, or a phone, a bicycle, an oven? How about a matchstick? Most of us use such things without knowing the basic physics behind them. So, would it be fair to call any of it “something humans have created that they do not understand”?
All of human civilisation has been an experiment in flinging ourselves into the unknown, sometimes recklessly. The current mass foray into the Internet is no different.
I think when people say that humans collectively “don’t understand” the Internet, what they really mean is that we don’t understand how it’s affecting our behaviour, relationships and culture; they mean that it is changing faster than we can adapt. This has nothing to do with the Internet as technology. It has to do with the Internet as a system for facilitating or organising human transactions. You can’t compare this to something like an engine. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Worse, it’s like comparing an Apple Watch to the colour orange.
The better comparison is between the social impact of various technologies. In this regard, there’s nothing new or unique about our inability to predict or understand—much less control—how our use of the Internet is changing us forever. In the 20th century, Ivan Illich noticed a similar pattern in relation to transportation technologies. He pointed out that cars changed daily life, not only by permitting people to travel faster and farther (as hoped) but also, in effect, by requiring people to travel faster and farther as a matter of survival. This was clearly inadvertent (and unfortunate). To paraphrase Illich: everything that used to be within a ten-minute walk is now within a ten-minute drive. We have saved no time because of the automobile. Instead, we are actually compelled to invest time (and money and natural resources) in order to acquire, maintain, and use the automobile, just to meet our basic needs—like going to to work, buying food, visiting the doctor—things we used to do in the same amount of time, and without the additional time and expense, before the car was invented. Sure, cars have greatly enriched life, but the civilisational switch to an excessively auto-centric economy and lifestyle has offset much of those benefits by costing us more time and money to do the same things, eliminating choice from the equation, and trashing the environment in the process.
The deeper issue here is not really any new “technology”, but our disturbing lack of foresight and moderation in using it. Throughout history, we have let our inventions—whether physical or procedural or cultural—irreversibly transform our behaviour and thoughts and lives and entire civilisations in ways that we don’t anticipate or comprehend. Almost no one understands markets, for example. Leading economists disagree vehemently with one another and have all been proven wrong, repeatedly, about the real-life dynamics of markets. Humans have developed commercial systems and engaged in trade, with ever-increasing sophistication, for centuries before they ever began to theorise about “how it works”. The most rudimentary explanations—like the “laws” of supply and demand—have been around for less than four hundred years, though currency-based trade has been around for thousands of years. Yet, we are so submerged in this system no one understands that we have no idea how to change it or walk away from it without catastrophic risks. All of the value we each produce with a lifetime of labour is subject to—even held hostage to—a system of valuation that no one really understands.
To paraphrase Illich: everything that used to be within a ten-minute walk is now within a ten-minute drive. We have saved no time because of the automobile. Instead, we are actually compelled to invest time (and money and natural resources) in order to acquire, maintain, and use the automobile, just to meet our basic needs
The same can be said about industrial production. It’s not that people don’t understand the machines they build or the operations/methodologies they invent, but I’m sure no one had imagined the new social realities that industrialisation would create. The industrial economy and its increasingly fine divisions of labour have made it possible for a person with no primary survival skills—like making fire, fending off predators, gathering or killing wild sources of food (or raising food in the form of crops and livestock) finding shelter in nature (or building it from raw materials found in nature)—to survive, even thrive. On the other hand, it is also precisely this same industrial economy, with its emphasis on specialisation that has created billions of people who grow up too heavily leveraged on a lopsided skillset, who would surely perish en masse if some catastrophe were to disable “the grid”, that grand artifice of modern technological civilisation.
What’s more, the hyper-specialised skills needed in an industrial economy (and its offshoot, the technological economy) demand enormous investments of time, effort, and resources to develop and update, leaving most people without the leisure to diversify their skillsets. This means making a living is at once easier and more precarious than it might have been in a pre-industrial setting. Meanwhile, ever-increasing productivity means that, ironically, some people are performing themselves out of fulltime employment and technological output is rendering others’ labour obsolete. But if we don’t participate in the economy, we can’t access its fruits. And no alternative survival systems exist anymore. You can’t “opt out” of the economy. So, the economy now exists for itself rather than for people. But people have nowhere else to turn. These absurd results could not have been anticipated, but nobody really knows how to reverse them.
***Is the Internet fundamentally different from these examples? Yes and no. Each example deals with very different types of change. Literacy changed the definition of functional intelligence. Modern transportation changed the minimum speed of life. The industrial/technological economy changed the investment risks associated with making a living. The internet is changing expectations of privacy and personal security. All of these developments have brought large benefits for human civilisation, but all of them have also changed things in ways we didn’t expect, and sometimes in ways we didn’t want.
The Internet (along with the many other, related and overlapping information/communication systems currently in use), is fast and dynamic and seems to have life of its own. It is based on technology that is responsive, interactive, and adaptive. It has unprecedented memory and computational/analytical faculties, almost rising to a sort of “intelligence” (someday soon it might actually become intelligent in the true sense of the word). Yet this needn’t be scary or problematic. What we should worry about is not what the Internet does but what we do with it.
After all, it wasn’t the invention of the motorised vehicle that damaged the environment, perhaps irreparably. We are the ones who decided our cars would replace our legs as the default mode of transportation; we are the ones who radically reorganised all of our spaces and routines around that new habit. We would not have burned such staggering amounts of fossil fuels if we let cars remain dedicated for those extra enhancements to life—like the occasional excursion to a distant location—or when increased speed is required in an emergency. Instead, we have made dizzying speed and mandatory daily travels to “distant locations” the new normal.
If we are to really address the issue, we have to acknowledge that the core problem lies in ourselves. Like any addict, we have to honestly acknowledge the addiction.
The Internet is not to blame if we choose to cede control to it. We are the ones unthinkingly restructuring life so that we can’t just decide to scale back when we suddenly realise that we might not like all the consequences. If we expose too much personal information online, it’s not because there’s technology that can store and recall information and allows transactions to be processed online. It is because we have become so addicted to the ease of conducting all our personal business online that the practice of doing anything offline has fallen into disuse, and naturally, the mechanisms for that practice are increasingly unavailable. We are so addicted to the Internet’s constantly updating information, that we have starved print publishing nearly to death and soon it will be impossible to read anything offline even if wanted to; which means, of course, we can no longer read anything without being detected by advertisers and governments or anyone else who might be curious (and more tech-savvy than us).
The Eric Schmidt statement quoted above was made in the context of a larger comment on the disturbing trends in how people (especially the “Facebook generation”) use the Internet. Despite my disagreement with his characterisation of this phenomenon being unprecedented, I share that concern. But I think that if we are to really address the issue, we have to acknowledge that the core problem lies in ourselves. Like any addict, we have to honestly acknowledge the addiction.
Here, I’m not talking about individuals addicted to Internet use, although that is a concern many people have raised, and it might even be something that feeds into the “addiction” I am talking about. I refer to an analogous phenomenon, emergent at the societal level. At first, we use new technology to boost to our productivity, creativity, pleasure—or whatever—to a point beyond our basic requirements. This is the initial “high” of the drug. But then we, collectively, accelerate the speed and ease of our lives and activities and restructure everything to suit this new reality, to the point of utter dependency on the new technology even for our basic functions, so that it no longer especially enhances our lives; instead, we now need it to achieve a minimal level of functionality in life. We must invest time and resources to procure, maintain and use technology (or “drug”) just to achieve what we now perceive as “normal”. It’s no longer a “high”; now it’s just what we must have to keep from becoming utterly dysfunctional. If we were talking about individual people, this would be the very definition of addiction. This is what Ivan Illich had noted about our collective dependence of on the automobile and our willingness to reorder our entire worlds to accommodate it, regardless of the diminishing returns. To me, this doesn’t mean the invention of the automobile was something harmful or useless. It just means that we should have used it more judiciously and without foreclosing the possibility of reversing course if we ever needed to, instead of completely restructuring our entire way of life in an addictive manner. The same is true of the Internet.