Saturday, May 9, 2009

Speculations on significance

I've been having Internet connectivity problems the past couple of days, so who knows if this post will even make it, but I'll give it a shot anyway. As a result, there were a number of hanging-fire posts that require links and quotes, and I won't be able to give you those (because I have few links that are working right now).

What I can do is expound, briefly, on the significance of the Internet. It's a topic I've taken up before, and I tend to have a conservative view of such things. My usual question is, what would happen if X disappeared tomorrow, how would life change?

If we woke up tomorrow and the internal combustion engine had simply ceased to exist or to work, our lives would be dramatically altered, largely because we have about a century of building institutions around it. Where we work, where we live, our leisure-time activities, these choices have mainly been predicated on the idea that we have a tool that allows us to, for minimal expense really, travel hither and yon with relative ease. Had we no cars, our homes would be insupportable, our stores would be unsupplyable, and it is not at all clear (though an interesting counterfactual to mull on) what we could to survive.

And we can substitute any number of things for X and come up with similar results. Electricity, water distribution, the use of steel in construction: We can posit a world in which these things weren't developed, but it's difficult to see how we would get from the world we have now to a world in which those things didn't exist.

To me, the Internet has not yet reached that level. I'm not trying to minimize its importance in transferring information about the world, and it has brought about many changes. If the Internet suddenly disappeared, there would be huge inconveniences to a lot of people and organizations that have made it an integral part of their existence.

Yet, the pre-Internet institutions still, for the most part, continue to exist. We still have universal mail service, paper on which to write our letters, and stamps with which to mail them. We may get our news online, but we still could wander down to the newsstand and pick up a paper if we had to. The new networks such as Facebook and Twitter, whatever their potential might be, are still not necessary to the living of anyone's life; you can still join a bowling league if you want to.

Obviously, anything in that preceding paragraph might change, especially in the media universe. We may be very close to the moment when a major American metropolitan area ceases to have a newspaper of record, abandoning the field to the World Wide Web. But, even then, a large number of people will get their news from the radio or television, and the Internet will continue to be one option among many.

If you want to argue that the trend is clear, that the Internet will one day have at least the importance of the automobile or any other invention, I'm not disposed to disagree with you. But the overheated rhetoric, the embarrassing TIME essay by Ashton Kutcher about the founders of Twitter (I'd link to it if I could), the bandwagon-jumping of people who should know better, all this is still based more on a view of the future, not the reality of the present. We haven't yet scratched the surface of all the ways we might end up using the Internet, but it will take a lot of work to make that happen. So maybe we can tone down the fervor, OK?

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