Does the Internet Suck?

 Thanks to Mark Evans for pointing me to the original article and writing a (probably much better than mine) essay on the subject on his blog.
I mean anything other than time?  Last week, MacLean’s magazine (a weekly news magazine up here in the frozen north kind of in the Time vein)  published a story title “Pornography, gamling, lies, theft and terrorism: The Internet Sucks“.  It’s on the web now at the link here.  Basically the premise of the article is that we have not achieved the Utopian ideal the internet was promised to be back in the 90’s.  I have two kind of conflicting thoughts on that idea: 1) Is anyone the least bit surprised?  Like…seriously did you not see the opportunities for the seedier elements in the net in 1996?  and 2) Are you sure about that?  I think the net has achieved alot of what the early web idealists set out to do.  Keep in mind that I’m writing this based on the consumer internet experience and promises, not the early days of ARPA Net etc.
First off, thought #1.  When I first started to read the rumblings about the internet and all it’s groundbreaking possibilities, there was never a question that it would be a home to certain vices.  The medium is beautifully designed for doing things that you wouldn’t do in the public eye; it’s anonymous and it’s visual and it’s not regulated all to heck.  That was always the beauty of it.  And it was never hidden.  The fact that a porno viewer could access his or her dark hobby without leaving their house and being seen in the local 7-11 buying a Hustler was not kept secret.  Heck, this was the application that brought it to the masses.

In 1997 I had a roommate who was (still is I would guess) an IT genius, and he always said “The internet is the house that porn built”.  And that was true.  Back in the days when we all used netscape 2.0 for a browser, Eudora for mail and webcrawler for a search engine, the biggest application on the web for consumers was porn.  Followed closely by online gaming (not gambling so much at this point, but gaming).   I remember when I first got aDSL high speed access (around ’98 or so I think)…all of a sudden the net became uber useful to me.  Mainly for gaming.  Doom 2 which morphed into quake which morphed into Half life online, which morphed into counterstrike with a little unreal tournament on the side.   I spent hours that previously had been spent in front of a TV doing something somewhat interactive.

Chat rooms got big in my circle of friends for a while; we all hung out in various chat rooms and met people from all over the world that we never would have met.  Chat rooms lost their appeal to me when it turned out the “girl” I was speaking to online was my roomate’s girlfriend’s mother from southern Ontario!  That is a true story, and we all had a good laugh about it.  All of a sudden the saying “On the internet no one knows your a dog” made sense.  Hehe.   Anyways I digress.  The chat rooms were a great place to make new psuedo friends and have some shits ‘n giggles with people you never would have met, but they were also a den of cybersex.  It was easy to ignore the horndogs, but there were a poopload of ’em.   It was just one of the things you lived with.

Other dark side things were available online.  Here was a place you could read the “anarchists cookbook” and other hard to find borderline dangerous publications.  Everyone who played on the net at all knew that there was kiddie porn, hate literature, criminal endeavours of all kinds, bad taste sites etc.  It was just a fact of life, and disgusting as a lot of it is, it’s pretty easy to avoid offensive sites.  If you have kids, then you have a responsibility to educate them of these dangers as well.  If anything it was a mirror of society; all of those things are available in meat space in any community.  The difference online is that people can seek this garbage out without being seen doing so.

No, it was never a secret that the internet was a haven for the underbelly of humanity, at least not to people who spent any time on it.  The benefits still hugely outweighed the negatives.  Less offensive but still somewhat darkside things (like gambling) were not viewed by most geeks as dangerous but more as an opportunity.  The thing society doesn’t seem to get is that people who want to do certain things will do those things.  It doesn’t matter if gambling wasn’t available on the net; people would still gamble.  Here was a business opportunity.  Take away the legislation around it in a particular community and it’s a license to print money (note: online gambling IS regulated fairly heavily…just not as heavily as IRL gambling).  If anything putting it on the internet takes it out of the underground, thereby providing a safer environment for people to attain their “fix”.  Yes, it is much more accessible, and the argument could be made that it creates more gamblers, but I don’t know if that’s fair; again it comes down to education and desire.

I will give that the internet did create new crimes and enhance some older ones; identity theft became a real problem because of it.   Terrorists found new ways to communicate.  Kiddie diddlers and other like minded wastes of skin found ways to network.  The thing about this, though, is that EVERY new technology creates new crimes.  I’m pretty sure arson was never a problem til we created fire.  There were probably no shootings until we invented the gun.  Carjackings (or horse and carriage jacking) didn’t happen before the car.  Etc. etc.

Thought #2.  Has the reality of the internet fallen short of it’s promises and potential?  I don’t know that it has.  In 1995 (and this is quoted in the very well written MacLean’s article), John Perry Barlow said in an interview “With the development of the Internet . . . we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire”.  Is this not pretty much true?  Maybe the internal combustion engine and paper have done as much to advance humanity technically as the internet has, but that’s about it.  The internet most definitely IS the world’s community right now (at least the first and second world).  The internet HAS changed how we communicate, educate and entertain, and has surpassed all expectations for content availability.

As we continue to move through the information age and we see new technologies such as IPTV become the norm, the internet as a home based appliance becomes closer and closer.  For years now companies have noodled around with things like the “smart fridge” that purchases groceries as you take them out of the fridge, or the “smart home” that is accessed remotely to do various things such as manage your utilities and security while you are out.  With broadband internet access being pretty much ubiquitous in North America, these things are here, and I’m starting to see them advertised more and more.  Just this morning I see that AT&T has announced a web based remote home monitoring program.  The set top box has become more common than rare in todays homes and is the biggest step so far towards a web based home appliance to connect us to the world.

Yes, the internet has reached (or stepped towards) all the promises it has made.  We have created a global community, and we have opened new doors for communication and education because of it.   Sure there are bad elements.  But I don’t know that anyone ever said there wouldn’t be.  I think that rather than saying that the internet never achieved it’s promise, it may be better to say that it’s exceeded it’s potential.  Unfortunately that excess includes alot of not so nice things.  But again I say that no one ever said it wouldn’t.

As we move forward it is apparent that a certain amount of the anarchy we enjoy on the internet now will fade a bit; multi tiered charges and regulation is happening.  Governments are starting to see the revenue opportunities and the control possibilities as well as sense the desire from the public for someone to take responsibility for the dangerous sides.  As we move more into this controlled environment the potential for the internet to really suck, I think, grows.  For now tho, all the internet sucks is face time.

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