The Breakfast Table

Net Gains

Dear Joe,

I am glad you bit my well-baited hook about the impact of the Internet, since it has become one of our most frothy debates these days. In fact, I just got back from a book tour with two other technology writers, one of whom held your exact sentiments about the current development of the Web. He and I debated intensely over the course of two weeks and we never really changed each other’s mind. I ended up calling him a whiney Luddite and he said I was Web-addled. In any case, you hit all the high points of the arguments pro and con that are taking place, so let me address them one by one.

First, you are right that the Web is being used–and aggressively–by fomenters of hate who are spewing their poisonous attitudes out to the wider world using these powerful new technologies. My general attitude is still that this is probably a good thing, because I’ve always held the position that sunlight is the best disinfectant and all speech needs to be spoken. All these sites are surely loathsome to see, but haven’t these attitudes been in existence since the dawn of time? Frankly, I would rather be able to more clearly see exactly what these sites are spouting than to have them hide away dangerously in dark corners, ready to pounce. For the vast majority of people, being able to witness this dreck tends to remove its mystery and points out its idiocy only more clearly. When you know that the Internet seems to bring out the worst in people, I think your problem may be with the darker side of humanity more than anything else.

Second, you are right that it is unlikely that the Internet will live up to its potential. But what does really? Not me and not you and not television and not anything else. Some of what is on the Web right now is silly, some depressing, some crazy, and some just plain stupid. A lot of what is being created now is aimed only at getting people to buy more stuff they probably don’t need. And Amazon’s one-click shopping, AOL’s Buddy List, and eBay’s bidding frenzies are not going to change the world for the better.

But I firmly posit that the increasingly free flow of information that the Internet allows can only benefit people in the long run by educating them on the wider world outside their windows. What is undeniably powerful is the ability to self-publish for low cost. I can’t own a telephone company or a television network, or even a fine newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, but I can put up anything I want to on the Web. To me, it doesn’t really matter if people go there or not. Perhaps all this communication will only result in pointless cacophony, but I like the noise.

I am troubled by the kind of behavior that the Internet seems to engender and am often offended by the cruel and mindless blather that is too easy to find. The stock chat rooms are a good example, since most of them have turned into places of little value. But I encounter rage and misbehavior when I drive to work every morning, as people seem to have lost a lot of the civility that used to rule. But again, I don’t think the Internet is to blame for this. It’s just a fact of life that people can be beastly.