Is the internet evil?

Since it’s the weekend, let’s bat around one of those endless debates which cropped up yet again this week at the Washington Post, where Christine Emba asks the perplexing question, is the internet evil? Personally, I’ve had countless moments over the past two decades where I would have jumped out of my seat with one of two answers, each equally heartfelt:

1. Of course not and that’s a ridiculous question.
2. Obviously the internet is evil!

Emba provides some food for thought taken from a 1998 speech given by Neil Postman titled, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” The author admits that the speech is a bit of a “snoozer” but it brings up a number of bullet points to consider. These are:

  • All technological change is a trade-off
  • The advantages and disadvantages of a new technology are never distributed evenly
  • Embedded in every technology is a philosophy… which will have practical consequences
  • Technological change is not additive; it is ecological
  • When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous

There’s far too much to digest there in a single column, so let’s just consider a few of the highlights. All change is indeed a tradeoff, but I would argue that not all trades are good. In fact, few trades are good for both parties involved because people are always engaged in a struggle to get one up on the next person. While the internet opened up new vistas and opportunities, it destroyed a lot of jobs. This is a bit of a Luddite view, but I freely admit that I’ve always been a Luddite to a certain degree. This ties into the concept of the advantages of technology never being distributed evenly.

A truly interesting point is the one about philosophy being embedded in technology. That’s the human element (which I’ll get to in a moment.) The internet has its masters and mistresses who control the reins of the technology and hold that over the users. But among the users of the internet, power is also unequally distributed due to a variety of factors. Now replace the word “philosophy” in Postman’s premise with “ideology.” There should be a lightbulb illuminating over your head right about now.

Technology can and does become dangerous when it reaches “mythic” status, but I’m not sure even Postman foresaw the rise of social media. He expands on that concept by saying that “technology tends to become perceived as part of the natural order of things and thus is allowed to control more of our lives than is good for us.” How much time do you spend on social media, browsing websites or simply staring at your phone screen every day? What did you use to do with all that time? It’s an idea sure to give us pause.

As for me, I’ve had a mixed relationship with the internet from the beginning, besides being one of the early adopters. (I started out with a pile of America Online CDs and we were later one of the first ten families in our village to get cable internet access from Roadrunner and ditch our dial-up modem.) The internet had so much promise and potential and some of that was delivered, but so many things just became so shockingly awful after enough people got their hands on it. I could list examples for you here but if you’re the type of person to read blogs such as this one you no doubt have your own.

So to return to the original question… is the internet evil? The internet is like a series of evil tubes, you see. In and of itself, that old joke making fun of Ted Stevens’ attempts to describe the web actually contains a lot of truth. The internet is simply a vastly complex tool connecting billions of devices. Absent the rise of Artificial Intelligence inside the system, it lacks the capacity to be either good or evil. It’s only when people begin using it and injecting all of the aspects of humanity, both good and nefarious, into the system that it begins to ripen or rot.

For a long time back in the day, starting at some point I can’t precisely remember during the second term of George W. Bush, I had one of those vinyl strips from a hand-held label maker stuck to the front edge of my desk in my home office. It read, “The internet eventually ruins everything it touches.” I’m not sure why I originally punched that message out because I’m old and my memory fails me. It might have been because of the number of friends and colleagues I saw losing their jobs to outsourcing. Or maybe it was just because of yet another night of lost sleep, wasted because Somebody Was Wrong On The Internet And I Had To Correct That.

What I do know is that my opinion on the subject still hasn’t changed. The internet itself is a tool, but what too many people have chosen to do with it is truly awful and the dark too frequently seems to overwhelm the light. The internet isn’t evil. But a lot of the people using it can certainly make it seem that way.