Many of us welcomed the World Wide Web as a liberating technology. The Web promised to perfect the capitalist system: from now on, all markets would be global and all transactions would occur at the speed of light. Consumers would have instant access to information on any subject. No government would be able to stem the free flow of facts and opinions. With anonymous but verifiable digital cash, even oppressive taxes could be circumvented.
It turned out we were just a tad too optimistic.
It’s not acknowledged as often as it should be, but a falsehood travels as fast as the truth on the Internet. Breaking news stories often contain inaccuracies that spread quickly across the Web—even after the original report has been corrected. There is much good information on Wikipedia, but there is also some bad information. You should not always believe what you read—whether it’s in a book or on the Web.
My wakeup call came about ten years ago when online activists began promoting “direct democracy.” The activists claimed that the United States was established as a representative democracy primarily because at that time there was no simple and timely way to poll a geographically scattered population on the issues as they came up. Thanks to the Internet, it was now possible to directly poll the people, so we could do away with elected representatives. I knew that wasn’t the real reason we are a representative republic and that “direct democracy” was simply mob rule in new clothing.
On balance, it still seemed that the Internet was a liberating technology. A falsehood could spread quickly, but the truth would never be far behind. Though some people were calling for government regulation of the Internet, most users understood the Internet succeeded because it was self-regulated. Besides, no single entity could really control the Internet. There is no central point of control; on the Internet, most of the power resides at the edges. Getting on the Internet is easy and inexpensive for content publishers. And digital technology makes it easy to operate anonymously—beyond the reach of censors.
Still, one point continued to nag me. During the 20th century, several writers warned that if we weren’t careful technology would be used to pacify, manipulate, and even oppress us. Their books, films, and television programs depicted several different dystopian futures. The warnings were particularly hard to ignore because some of what they predicted was already happening.
Patrick McGoohan’s television series The Prisoner, Aldus Huxley’s book Brave New World, and George Orwell’s novel 1984 are three important examples.
In The Prisoner, McGoohan plays a secret agent who resigns only to be abducted and brought to a place called The Village. Both wardens and prisoners are addressed only by their assigned numbers. A variety of high-tech psychological techniques are used in a relentless effort to get Number Six (McGoohan) to disclose why he resigned. The Prisoner foreshadows the Web in that individuals are known by numbers (analogous to IP addresses) and elaborate schemes are used in order to extract private information (analogous to phishing attacks).
Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a futuristic, class-based society in which people are created in test tubes and trained from infancy to serve defined roles. Technology is used to keep everyone happy—and somewhat numb to reality. Huxley also believed that in the future people would be controlled through subliminal suggestion. In retrospect, the most worrisome thing about Brave New World is how willingly people give up their individual sovereignty for hedonistic pleasures. Though some Internet users still worry about privacy, many more seem comfortable trading their privacy for perks such as free email (example: Gmail).
Orwell’s novel 1984 graphically depicts how brutal leaders might use technology to brainwash, control, and spy on citizens. Big Brother’s primary tool for controlling the upper and middle classes is the “telescreen”—a combination television and surveillance camera. That was a pretty good guess—given that Orwell wrote his book in the late 1940s. Even today, most users probably don’t realize how much information they reveal about themselves when they use search engines, social networks, and cloud computing. A video camera can see your body; a Web access device is a window into your soul.
Do we really have something to worry about? A handful of online companies—most notably Google but also companies such as Facebook—have the ability to gather data on hundreds of millions of users day in and day out. Most of us can hardly begin to imagine what that information reveals about the behavior of individuals, groups, and humanity as a whole. Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving rapidly towards Crony Capitalism, a system in which leading politicians and powerful government agencies forge special relationships with a few large corporations. And there are many examples of how the Web is being used to mislead us—from altering digital photographs to manipulating search results.