BLOG POST: Here comes the Internet

The Internet democratizes knowledge, allowing us to fetch information from most newspapers, magazines, or books anywhere in the world. It provides choices. It is convenient; it spreads newspaper stories all over the Web, multiplying the readership. It opens lines of communication to bloggers and readers with valuable information and provocative opinions.  Thanks to the proliferation of Internet into our daily lives, we are racing through a revolution comparable to the one ushered in by Herr Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth Century. The outcome is as unclear today as it was then. “During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points,” NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote on his blog. He continued:

“The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment…When someone demands to know how we are going to replace the print, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution…They are demanding to be told that the ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to….We’re collectively living through 1500, when it is easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

Shirky is correct, I believe, in general, yet wrong about the unimportance of the printing press.  A good knowledge resource- regardless of being online or offline- should be like a supermarket with a variety of choices.  No one is forcing readers to pull items down from shelves. But they ought to have available to them all the information they need to be well-rounded, informed individuals.

In the digital age, technology alters the playing ground, just as it did in World War II.  As NYU professor Clay Shirky points out in his provocative book “Here comes Everybody”, German tanks were equipped with a technology the French tanks lacked; namely the radios. These radios allowed commandeers to share intelligence and make quick decisions, leaving French commanders standing still and guessing while German tanks moved in concert.  “The French regarded tanks as a mobile platform for accompanying foot soldiers while the Germans understood that the tank allowed for a new kind of fighting, a rapid style of attack…” The technology provided Germany with an advantage, but   so did a superior strategy that allowed Germany to prevail.

At this point, with regard to the strategic use of technology, it might be relevant to take into account the famous scholarly debate between Huxley and Orwell.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. On the other hand, in Huxley’s vision, people will come to love this oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think…. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. At a time, when especially Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries convulse toward becoming a democracy by integrating social networking tools into the process of revolution, can we talk of passivity any longer? As Orwell rightly claimed, maybe the citizens should worry about those who banned the Internet. Or shall the governors fear those individuals empowered via technology? As in the case of the printing press revolution, we’re collectively racing through it and only time will tell us about the outcome.

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