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Got Problems? Blame the Internet

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After decennia of refusing to accept, even see reality, it has become undeniable. The world is falling apart. And instead of rushing to fix it, we’re looking for someone or something to blame. It didn’t take long, it’s here – in our midst, ubiquitous. The Internet.

Of course. It’s the obvious culprit. We’ve known it for some time. Recently it has become scary. Fake news, hate speech, abusive material, privacy & id theft, ransomware, cyberwar, crypto scams, terrorism and more – all enabled by the Internet. Umair Haque – a strong voice on about everything bad in the world and why – recently wrote:

“With Hate, Rage, Bigotry, and Ignorance, the Internet’s Destroying Our Ability to Be a Civilization — When We Need it Most.”

… and continued:

“The internet is a failure. It is an engine of inequality — and then it’s an engine of hard, far, extreme right wing shifts.”

A continuous rant about all the bad things in the world – most of it correct and well reasoned, with one caveat: He – and everyone else shooting off against the Internet these days – are shooting the proverbial piano player.

It’s like blaming the roads we’ve built over thousands of years for all wars, all terrorism, everything else bad. Ignoring that without them we’d still be in the stone age.

It may be argued these voices have a different definition of the Internet. That may be so, but wouldn’t it be reasonable to define the target first, then start the attack instead of just carpet bombing the entire Internet which for all practical purposes means the entire world?

Technically the Internet is a network. Physical components implementing technologies that enable digital communication at speeds and in quantities beyond comprehension – and by now almost ubiquitous in its availability. All this technology is out of sight for most people – as it should be, but the (correct) perception that the Internet is something we connect to, a delivery mechanism, prevails. ‘I need an Internet connection’ and ‘do you have coverage?’ are statements understood by young and old in our world. As is the consequence of being ‘off net’, ‘disconnected’ or having ‘no coverage’: Out of touch with the world. A correct assessment. No Internet, no communication – or, at best, some local communication.

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The Internet is connecting billions of people every day and night, enabling the digital world – from education to cell phones, from pacemakers to power plants, from cars to airplanes. How can this be a failure?

‘Well, that’s not what they mean’ you may argue. I know, but that’s what they say. If they mean something else, they need to say something else instead of creating more of the confusion and problems they criticize. Is social media a failure? Depends on the metric, and I would be the first to answer ‘yes’ if the metric is the initial, early-day hopes and ambitions – the peaceful global village.

The Internet connects us with countless services provided by countless businesses, many of which seem to be out of control. They are not, because there simply is no control. It has been (although we like to think otherwise) a wild west situation where rules were (and still are) created on the go, everything is allowed until it isn’t and the strongest, sometimes most brutal, prevail. There is little or no control because the regulations are few and far between – and generally created in hindsight by politicians and bureaucrats that don’t understand this rapidly changing reality.

Just like the PC software market in the 90s and 2000s where Microsoft used every dirty trick in the book to create and maintain a monopoly – and the regulator’s attempts to reign in the beast had little effect. Eventually, the market fixed it by moving on (a both fascinating and scary story, check out the books The Microsoft File (1998) and Breaking Windows (2001)). The semiconductor market followed the same trajectory in the 80s and 90s, with Intel being the predator (see the book Inside Intel (1997)). In the latter case, government regulations actually worked to some extent. Then the market fixed the rest.

That’s not going to happen this time. The speed of change, the volume (number of users, amount of data/objects), the lack of global cooperation, the number of companies (and governments) involved prevent even accelerated regulations from having more than superficial effects. Which doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, but that we have to adjust ambitions and do it ourselves.

The government will not fix it, not because they wouldn’t like to, but they are incapable. They can contribute via basic regulations – like prohibit abuse and enable general, enforceable rules, but they cannot prevent us – the users – from accepting, even inviting abuse. The choices we made created the Internet services we so badly criticize today. We didn’t know better then. Now we do.

The Internet isn’t a failure, our naïve hopes and expectations are. The peaceful, global village where everybody can communicate, prosper, have human rights and be equal was a pipe dream. The Internet delivered the opportunity, we embraced it and failed badly. It’s not more complicated than that. Now we have to clean up, regroup and reorganize before everything falls completely apart.

Which we’re doing – on many levels, accelerated by war, terror and evaporating trust. We’re pulling outsourced factories back, reducing dependencies and sharing, tech and science in particular, focusing on local resources – datacenters, food supplies, products and much more. Prices are rising, supply chains broken, familiar products are disappearing.

In short, we’re regrouping for survival. Necessary and also unfortunate because it happens at a time when international cooperation is required to save life on earth. Bad timing indeed. We’re all sharing the same planet, so in a sense we’re a global village after all. But peaceful? Not even close.

I like the clear and direct, if sometimes unpleasantly brutal messages from Umair Haque and many other contemporary writers. Their wakeup calls are badly (and sadly) needed. But even they miss sometimes, use sloppy language, wrong terms and expressions and create confusion. The examples are plenty, ‘Internet’ is just one of them. Don’t accept it. Let them know. We’re all in this together.

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