Since the emergence of the World Wide Web in 1990, the number of individuals who have gained access to the internet globally has increased exponentially. This growth has accelerated year by year, reaching incredible figures: in 1995 the number of internet users was 44 million; in 2000 it increased to 413 million and in 2016 it reached 3.4 billion– covering almost half of the world’s population.
This momentous change did not happen by chance, of course. The rise of the World Wide Web was accompanied by the equally considerable ascendance of internet companies and the demand for the services they provide. What follows is a brief discussion of how the internet and internet companies have impacted the increasingly complicated and interconnected world we inhabit.
In the last three decades, the internet has drastically altered the ways in which we communicate, do business, and ultimately the way we conduct our lives. If you are young and live in what is considered to be part of the developed world, and increasingly the whole world; it may be hard to imagine a time without internet – a time without Wi-Fi or Facebook or WhatsApp.
Even having spent most of my teenage years and early twenties in Southern Africa, an area which is considered underdeveloped by global standards, I could observe the impact that mobile phones and the internet had on people’s everyday life.
It could be quite easily argued that these dramatic changes amount to a revolution – one in many ways more far-reaching and profound than the one brought about by the Gutenberg printing press in 15th century Europe.
This is quite a claim to make but think about it for a moment. Although printing made it much easier to spread information, as people could finally take a break from handwriting books; the changes brought about by this activity were quantitative rather than qualitative.
Whereas the press made the spread of information easier and more efficient, the internet has truly changed the way we live our lives. We don’t just have more information available at our fingertips – we have more services, more ways to become educated, more ways to communicate with distant family and friends; whole new jobs have been generated thanks to this invention.
Being a student of politics, I sometimes like to think about what people from the 16th or 17th centuries would have thought if they were told about the coming of the internet. It is quite a difficult thing to imagine, especially considering the political climate of the time.
Part of me thinks that aristocrats and lords would have been appalled at the idea of an invention that allowed its users to learn just about anything in the world – a considerable threat to their dominance.
The other part of me enjoys entertaining the thought of ordinary people hearing about this and thinking “Ha! How are those in power going to fool us now?”.
Imagine, for a moment, Karl Marx hearing about the internet. He too would have been torn, I believe. On the one hand pleased that the global proletariat would have the means to directly communicate; and on the other still wondering when the revolution would finally dawn, given this powerful new technology.
But here we are, in the 21st century, in the full fledge of the information age – a time like no others in history.
In the midst of all these technological shifts, however, how safe is it to say that everything around us has improved?
That our lives have been enhanced in a number of ways following the rise of the internet is clearly undeniable, but it seems almost equally plausible to assert that not everything has been so positive.
Is it a ‘good thing’ that we devote so much time to being online now? A good indication of how much time we spend online can be seen using real-time statistics like the one from Casino Pick.
Is it a ‘good thing’ that an extremely small number of internet companies has monopoly power over data and the information we share with each other every day?
Is it a ‘good thing’ that the power of some of these companies quite literally rivals that of many nation-states around the globe?
Surely there ought to be something to be said in these regards; and whilst I do not possess the knowledge to answer these complex questions, I believe that a careful approach towards these issues may be the best way to go.
I think a good way to conceptualize this approach may be to think of what would happen if we did the exact opposite.
So, what would happen if we just left it all in the hands of these few tech companies and simply trusted them to ‘behave themselves’, whatever that entails?
They have all our data. They know what we like; our needs, our habits, our interests. Why not just leave everything up to them?
This does not sound like a viable approach to me. In fact, it sounds quite dangerous and possibly suicidal. Hence my argument that we should be skeptical and not get too complacent with what we allow internet companies to get away with – think of Facebook’s data scandal from earlier this year. Think of what the potential real-world implications of something so large being mismanaged could be.
Ultimately, my point is predicated on the fact that these companies are not entities that exist independently of us – they are managed by human beings, and human beings are fallible creatures. Hell, now that I think of it, I am quite glad that they are not separate entities operated by artificial intelligence – at least not yet – but you get my point.
I think this provides enough justification for us ordinary citizens to be prudent and wary in the face of large-scale technological shifts.
True, the rewards have never been higher – but then again, neither have the potential costs.
The power we wield is unprecedented. Let’s make good use of it.
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