Why the internet is making us all sad, mad and bad…
I cannot imagine life without the internet, and I cannot honestly remember what life was like before it came along. I purchase books on Audible and keep a library of songs on my phone. I book holidays, plan journeys, download articles and, increasingly, watch films and programmes online. So, am I glad that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet?
In a word, no. The internet has, for me, as for millions of other people, made life as a consumermore convenient. That is a real benefit, and a considerable one. But has the internet done anything else of value to outweigh its many dangers and downsides? No.
This may seem like an extreme position. Surely, many would argue, the liberating and enlightening possibilities of the internet outweigh its drawbacks and dangers. Let us consider the balance sheet.
The dangers and drawbacks are all too obvious to any parent. There is the danger of readily available hard-core pornography and of websites espousing irrational, paranoid and hate-filled worldviews, and lurking beyond these evils are the horrors of the dark web. On a more banal and everyday level there is the considerable contribution the internet plays in exacerbating the age old teenage issues of loneliness, bullying, addictive behaviour and alienation. If we view adolescence as an emotional obstacle course on the way to the relative sanity of adulthood, the internet has unquestionably helped make many of the obstacles that much more challenging to surmount.
But, surely, balanced against all this, there are the two overwhelming goods of universally available information and of the free discourse of people across cultures. When the utopian and liberating possibilities held out by these two factors are considered, surely the downsides of the internet are a price more than worth paying?
Sir Tim Berners-Lee certainly thinks so. He was, and – remarkably – remains, an optimist. He has stated that, ‘I hope we will use the net to cross barriers and connect cultures.’ This highlights the basic problem with optimism, it tends to ignore the uncomfortable things like facts.
Is the internet a tool for enlightenment? Sadly, no. The assumption that it is rests on a confusion between information and knowledge. Information is thrown at us from all angles and is, in itself, largely useless. Knowledge emerges from the ability to weigh information, sort truth from falsehood, and then work out who you need to be and what you need to do. The internet has vastly multiplied the volume of information we are exposed to and, if anything, significantly reduced our chances of turning information into knowledge. As Roger Scruton has put it, “The effect of information technology is to give images precedence over thought and to multiply a thousand-fold the space in which ideas are conceived and brokered.”
Likewise, is the internet a tool for liberation? Again, the facts suggest not. Let’s take the example of the Arab Spring in 2011. At the time this was lauded as the first large scale example of modern information technology fuelling a movement of mass political liberation and progress. Sadly, back in the real world (or “the meat world” as apostles of the new technologies derisively refer to it) power still flows from the barrel of a gun. Seven years after the Arab Spring, what do we have to show for the first internet inspired mass movement of human liberation? Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands dead; several failed states; Islamism and the Iranian state stronger than ever, and the entire Middle Eastern region in worse shape than at any time in the last century, which is really saying something! Of course, the internet cannot be seen as the cause of these many calamities, but it certainly didn’t do anything to stop them.
In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that – far from knocking down walls of prejudice and broadening peoples’ minds – the explosion of choice represented by the internet is allowing people to retreat into ‘thought ghettos’ wherein every viewpoint they are exposed to (along with every purchase they make) is designed to reinforce their existing habits and prejudices. There is little doubt that in the last few years the political climate has become more aggressive, less rational and more sharply divided than at any time in living memory. Again, I am not claiming that the internet is the sole cause of this. But I am convinced that the way in which we all increasingly live and consume within ‘ghettos’ of thought and preference has played a part in creating this menacing situation. Social interactions within the ‘meat world’ are far more likely to broaden your mind than online interactions.
Reaching the obvious conclusion that something as huge, life transforming and apparently progressive as the internet has actually turned out to be a very bad idea is instinctively counter-intuitive. It is as counter-intuitive as facing the uncomfortable truth that the pursuit of ever-rising living standards may well lead to our environmental demise. The reason for this is simple. For countless generations our ancestors struggled against the privations of nature and the darkness of ignorance. Throughout these countless generations any human triumph over nature, and any advance in the production and sharing of information, was a genuine and unqualified triumph. This has formed deep habits and prejudices within us as to what constitutes ‘progress.’ But the game has changed and, sadly, our instincts have not yet changed with it. Just as the natural world now badly needs less human production and consumption, so the human world actually needs less speed and volume of communication and information. If we don’t find a way to turn down the noise then, before long, human nature itself may be irreversible altered for the worse.