Internet Fails to Live up to Promise
They're all still down there, out of sight and all but out of mind - hundreds of millions of miles of hair-thin strands of glass, strung beneath the streets of every city, under farm fields, suburbs, deserts, and strewn across the ocean floor. It's enough optical fibre to wrap around the earth 4,000 times, with each strand capable of blasting library stacks of information across the globe at the speed of light. And almost all of it sits empty, dark and idle - an unseen monument to every unfulfilled promise of the Internet.
The experts said we needed all of it and more because once we discovered the power of the World Wide Web, there would be no stopping it. Billions would flood into cyberspace, changing everything about the way we communicate, educate and entertain.
They're still selling the same old line. On Oct. 9, Google bought YouTube - an INTERNET site used primarily for the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material and minute-long clips of people singing karaoke in their basements. This titan of new media, we're told, is worth US$1.65 billion. It's just the latest step in our long descent into cyber-madness. After 15 years and a trillion dollars of investment, just about everything we've been told about the Internet and what the information age would mean has come up short.
The idealists who conceived and pioneered the Web described a kind of enlightened utopia built on mutual understanding, a world in which knowledge is limited only by one's curiosity. Instead, we have constructed a virtual Wild West, where the masses indulge their darkest vices, pirates of all kinds troll for victims, and the rest of us have come to accept that cyberspace isn't the kind of place you'd want to raise your kids. The great multinational exchange of ideas and goodwill has devolved into a food fight. And the virtual marketplace is a great place to get robbed. The answers to the great questions of our world may be out there somewhere, but finding them will require you to first wade through an ocean of misinformation, trivia and sludge. We have been sold a bill of goods. We're paying for it through automatic monthly withdrawals from our PayPal accounts.
Let's put this in terms crude enough for all cyber-dwellers to grasp. The Internet sucks.
Right from the beginning, experts competed with one another to see who could attach the most outrageous superlative to the nascent technology. It was the most important breakthrough since the personal computer, no, since the telephone - or rather the telegraph, or maybe the printing press. Bill Gates, in a famous editorial for the New York Times, called the Internet a "tidal wave" that "will wash over the computer industry and many others, drowning those who don't learn to swim in its waves."
But it was John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead turned Internet visionary and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who set the gold standard for sweaty-palmed exuberance back in 1995 when Harper's magazine asked him to take part in a four-person discussion on the future of the Web. "With the development of the Internet ... we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire," he said. What's perhaps most telling is not so much that Barlow would make such a monumental claim, but that nobody on the panel cracked up laughing, or even disagreed. Such was the tenor of the times.
We've tempered our rhetoric in recent years, but only slightly. This year, the National Academy of Engineering released its list of the 20 greatest engineering accomplishments of the past 100 years. The Internet ranked 13th, but even that ranking seems laughably generous. For instance, it came in just ahead of imaging technologies like the X-ray, MRI and radar - breakthroughs that have allowed us to look inside the human body without breaking the skin, to predict the weather, and to see things invisible to the human eye. Has the Internet achieved anything remotely comparable? Next on the list are household appliances. Try going back to doing the family's laundry by hand for one week, and then see if you'd gladly trade your Internet connection to get your washing machine back.
Robert Gordon, an economics professor at Northwestern University, is one of the few who've consistently argued that the Internet is a useful tool, but not a revolutionary one. The trouble with the Net, he says, is that it has produced precious little that is really new. Just about everything that's accessible through the Web was available through other means before. Email is fine, for instance, but it pales next to the achievement of the telegraph, which shortened the time required to communicate over vast distances from weeks to minutes. The internal combustion engine, refrigeration, even air conditioning, had profound impacts on our lives, making the impossible practical. The Web does nothing of the sort. Emails replace faxes and phone calls. Online shopping replaces sales that used to be made through a catalogue. And for all but the most socially isolated, every hour spent trolling through chat rooms replaces an hour that might otherwise have been spent in real, live conversation.
Even in the research and academic communities, which always had the most to gain from the Internet, Gordon says, the advantages should be kept in perspective. "It has made collaboration and communication faster and more efficient, but we're still doing the same things," he says. "The great works in my field were all written before the Internet. It didn't make possible a great improvement in quality, it just made it possible to get things done more easily."
That's important, because if the Internet was only ever about convenience and finding quicker ways of doing the same old things, then all those lofty claims that drove the Internet into the mainstream were little more than hype. But, as history has shown many times, hype can be a very lucrative business.
In the late 1990s, just as the dot-com gold rush was reaching manic proportions, Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric and perhaps the most respected executive in the world at the time, described the Internet as "the Viagra of big business." Welch is known for his colourful analogies, but rarely did he hit the bull's eye so precisely as he did that day. Just like America's favourite little blue pill, the Internet produced in business a rush of extreme excitement, which temporarily interfered with normal brain function. It was manifested in one of the most impressive market climbs in modern history between 1998 and mid-2000 - a euphoric ride, followed by an equally astonishing collapse. Like Viagra, it sure was fun while it lasted.
That much is well-known. But what most people still don't realize is that much of the global Internet mania of the late 1990s was driven by a myth, wilfully propagated by a handful of corporate executives, several of whom are now in prison. The magic number of the dot-com boom was that, between 1997 and 2000, Internet traffic was doubling every 100 days. It was a stunning claim that seems to have begun with WorldCom Inc., the telecom company run by Canadian Bernie Ebbers, which collapsed amid scandal in 2002. That one statistic suggested the world was in the midst of a stampede to the Web, and it became one of the immutable truths of the new economy, repeated in casual conversation by CEOs, analysts, day traders and taxi drivers. Whenever anyone would suggest that dot-com market valuations were getting out of hand, or pose a skeptical questions, executives would simply pull out that jaw-dropping statistic.
In fact, according to professor Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota, Internet traffic was doubling every year between 1996 and 2002 - still impressive, but a far cry from the more than 1,300 per cent annual growth implied by WorldCom officials and others. This was more than just an innocuous urban myth - it was the seed of one of the most devastating and economically distorting episodes in modern history.
When the dot-com bubble finally burst in mid-2000, the losses ran into the trillions of dollars, and crushed the retirement dreams and career aspirations of millions. Where did all that money go? Some of it went to lay all that unused fibre optic cable. Some of it went to buy computer equipment and foosball tables for a thousand doomed Internet start-ups. And billions went to pay the bonuses of investment bankers and analysts, and to build vacation homes in the Caymans for the CEOs of dot-coms that no longer exist.
Google's recent purchase of YouTube suggests we're eagerly preparing to repeat our mistakes. MySpace, a money-losing social networking site, was similarly sold to NewsCorp. almost a year ago for US$580 million. Speculation is now rampant that Yahoo! Inc. will soon buy another nascent site, Facebook, for north of US$1 billion. All this for companies that did not exist a few years ago, and which have yet to prove that they can translate large traffic into even meagre profits. Some analysts estimate YouTube is currently losing as much as US$1.5 million every month.
The Internet works like Viagra for big business, all right. But the list of those who get screwed goes far beyond just investors and pension plans.
In 1995, the U.S. government's top copyright officer, Marybeth Peters, called the Internet "the world's biggest copying machine." She didn't know the half of it. At the time, slow connection speeds and weak processing power meant the Web was still essentially a print medium. Within a couple of years, however, the full force of the Web's assault on intellectual property rights would come into focus.
As we all remember, the real trouble started with Napster, the little company run by a 19-year-old named Shawn Fanning, who figured out a way to let users swap files stored on their hard drives over the Web. Within a year of its creation, Napster offered 200,000 songs available for free download. By February 2001, the site had more than 26 million users. The music industry sued for US$20 billion and eventually managed to put Napster out of the stolen-music business. But by the time the industry won, it had already lost. Napster had spawned dozens of copycat sites that continue to operate in the Web's legal grey zone, in which copying and distributing music and video for free is not really allowed, but isn't prevented either.
The music industry partially solved the problem by giving in to it. All major record labels struck deals with legitimate online retailers like iTunes to make songs available for one dollar a track and albums for around $10. It won't stop most of the pirating, but at least now fans who are inclined to buy their music legitimately have a means to do so. Last Christmas, the burgeoning online music industry sold $20 million in digital music over the Web in a single week, and the popularity of such services continues to grow.
Still, illegal downloads from sites like Kazaa, Limewire, Acquisition and BitTorrent continue to outnumber legal ones by a wide margin. Music is now, for all intents and purposes, sold strictly on the honour system. And as connection speeds and computer storage capacity improve, the same is increasingly true for movies, television programs and sporting events. Despite the objections of major publishers, Google is pressing ahead with a project to scan and store digitized copies of millions of books that would be searchable on the Web. It will undoubtedly be an amazing research tool. It's also a potentially crippling blow to publishers whose businesses depend upon selling books to thousands of libraries around the world.
Some will undoubtedly find ways to make a virtue out of this new digital world. It will expose small artists to greater audiences than the old record company model, for example. And it has already proven to be a boon to consumers, who get almost unlimited choice and lower prices. But that benefit has arisen out of the fact that it has never been so easy and consequence-free to pilfer an exact copy of someone's work - be it music, film, writing or research. To suggest the arts are ultimately better off thanks to Internet file sharing is to suggest that entertainers would've been better off to hand out CDs for free and live on donations from fans.
The whole system of ascribing an economic value to works of art has been thrown out the window. And artists aren't the only ones suffering from the sudden glut of cheap product being slung around the Web.
On Wednesday, July 5, Ken Lay, the former chairman and CEO of Enron Corp. died in Colorado. The news first hit the wires around 10 a.m., and at 10:06 Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows users to update and modify entries, proclaimed that Lay had died "of an apparent suicide." Two minutes later, somebody changed the entry to say Lay had died "of an apparent heart attack or suicide." Less than a minute later, some cooler head intervened and corrected the entry to say the cause of death was "yet to be determined." At 10:11 the entry was changed again, this time asserting that "The guilt of ruining so many lives finally led him to suicide." A minute after that, someone cited a news report that "according to Lay's pastor the cause was a 'massive coronary heart attack.' " Then, at 10:39, one of the Internet's anonymous, self-taught cardiologists wrote: "speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead [sic] many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial." Finally, a few hours later, the entry was set straight, noting simply that Lay had died of a heart attack in Aspen.
But other lies are not so easily set straight. Conspiracy theories, conjecture and outright fabrications masquerade as fact on the Internet, and often, nobody seems to notice the difference. The problem is rooted equally in the nature of humans and the nature of cyberspace. The designers of the Internet put their deepest faith in the wisdom of the masses to establish truth and value by consensus. Google ranks search results based on how many others link to a particular site. Digg.com is a site organized according to users' ratings on what's interesting and what isn't. And Wikipedia, of course, is based upon the notion that hundreds of thousands of anonymous contributors, all acting as freelance fact checkers, can produce a reliable reference document. Unfortunately, the masses have proven themselves truly unworthy of that trust.
The real problem is that, with the spreading influence of the Internet, we are trading in authoritative and accurate for cheap and convenient. Wikipedia is only one example. Millions of people continue to flock to the Net for information on their health, despite what we know about its fallibility. Studies by the American Medical Association and World Health Organization have found that the quality of medical information on the Web ranges from spotty to dismal. Whether you're after stock tips, or parenting advice, or movie reviews, it's all out there, free of charge, and generally worth exactly what you pay for it.
It'd be easy to just dismiss the Web, if not for the impact it has had on the so-called "old media." Terrified of being left behind in the rush online, newspapers and magazines simply dumped the contents of their publications onto the Internet for free. Meanwhile, aggregator sites like Google and Yahoo!News troll the Web and post headlines, photos and lead paragraphs from publications all around the world, eating into the audience for traditional newspapers and collecting a share of the ad revenue. The sudden shift in the economics of newsgathering has exerted huge pressure on the traditional news gatherers, and major outlets from the New York Times to London's Daily Telegraph have responded by paring back their news staff. And so, in an era in which we're supposed to have universal access to more information from more varied sources around the world, there are fewer and fewer reporters on the ground digging up original information. And the companies in the business of providing credible, original reporting are finding it more and more difficult to survive.
In the place of hard information, the Net has ushered in the era of the amateur commentator. Rather than reporting the news, the Internet actually excels at allowing millions to analyze the news of the day on their blogs and message boards. "It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country - and indeed the world - has yet seen," George Will, Newsweek's revered columnist, wrote a few years back. Sounds spectacular, but what's the great value of a participatory marketplace of mass speech if so few have anything to say that's worth buying?
Andrew Keen, a former Internet entrepreneur turned heretic, argues that this "digital utopianism" is playing havoc with our economy and politics. His forthcoming book, titled The Culture of the Amateur, is based on the idea that the onslaught of blogs, wikis and social networking websites is destroying our culture by celebrating mediocrity and devaluing talent. "The cult of the amateur is digital utopianism's most seductive delusion... It suggests, mistakenly, that everyone has something interesting to say," he wrote earlier this year, ironically, on his own blog.
Google News, Craigslist and the world army of bloggers have devalued journalism just as surely as Napster poisoned the market for recorded music. According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project, there are now more than 12 million bloggers in the United States alone, and more than a third of them consider what they do a form of journalism, even though little or no reporting is involved. There are certainly some interesting and insightful blogs, on a wide range of topics. But, in general, the more substantive the subject matter, the less reliable the commentary is. The vast majority of political blogs are deeply ideological and partisan, attract a core of like-minded contributors, and tend to devolve into vitriolic screeds or sophomoric insults. They feed on their contempt for the so-called mainstream media, which is derisively referred to as the "MSM," and is derided by both left and right as hopelessly biased and manipulative.
In a 2001 paper, Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, described the "echo chamber" effect of blogs and message boards. Rather than fostering debate, moderation and common understanding, he argued, these sites have contributed to the polarization of our political culture. People gravitate toward sites that reflect their established point of view, and once comfortably ensconced in their political echo chamber, the participants take turns preaching to the assembled choir, reinforcing each other's ideas and biases, and denouncing anyone who might disagree.
Rather than promoting open discussion and greater understanding, the Net has fed the cynical perception that every form of traditional authority is based on lies and corruption. The much-hyped free market of ideas is a world in which the loudest and most outrageous assertion dominates the discussion. Everybody believes they are being oppressed by those opposed to them. The truth is what you already think it is, and nobody can be trusted.
What would you want to know about, if you could know about anything? The Internet posed this question on a massive, global scale, and the answers we've provided are depressing.
Tim Berners-Lee, the man widely credited with inventing the World Wide Web, once said he envisioned an "an interactive sea of shared knowledge ... immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believe or have figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer." But the public at large saw an open invitation to indulge vice on an unimaginable scale. A 1998 study by Forrester Research pegged the market for online porn at close to US$1 billion annually. How much it has grown since then is the subject of bitter disagreement, but one company, Internet Filter Review, reported that between 1998 and 2003 the number of pornographic pages on the World Wide Web rose from 14 million to 260 million.
But the burgeoning world of online gambling dwarfs porn for sheer earning power. In 2004, the American Gaming Association, a lobby group for the legalized U.S. casino industry, estimated that online gambling was a US$7-billion to $10-billion business and was growing at the rate of 20 per cent a year.
If porn bores you and you don't have the stomach for online poker, infidelity is also a booming business on the Web. A recent study by Jupiter Research found that 12 per cent of people registered with online dating services are married, and Ashley Madison, a Canadian-based site specifically aimed at married people looking to have an affair, now boasts more than 700,000 registered members.
It's an oft-repeated exaggeration that the Internet is being used overwhelmingly for debauchery. It is far more accurate to say the vast majority of what we do online is utterly trivial. Last year, the top 10 Google searches were as follows: Janet Jackson, hurricane Katrina, tsunami, xBox 360, Brad Pitt, Michael Jackson, American Idol, Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, and Harry Potter. Berners-Lee's interactive sea of shared knowledge is primarily concerned with two actors, three singers, a video game console, a TV show, a fictional character and two natural disasters.
Some might argue that the Internet bears no responsibility for our own moral frailties and frivolous interests. The fact that the Internet has shown us as we really are may be disappointing, but the failure is that of human nature. There are reasons, however, to suspect that the Internet isn't just reflecting social values but also helping to shape them. How many people do things online that they otherwise wouldn't because it's anonymous and consequence-free? Simply put - the easier it gets to be bad, the worse we get.
Take, for example, the plague of academic plagiarism that has proliferated across university campuses over the past decade. In 2003, Rutgers University conducted the most comprehensive study to date on academic cheating, polling more than 18,000 students and 2,000 professors at 23 U.S. schools. An astonishing 38 per cent of undergraduates and 25 per cent of grad students admitted to using the Internet for some form of plagiarism in the past year, up from 10 per cent in a similar survey conducted two years earlier. About five per cent admitted to submitting an entire assignment cribbed from the Internet and passing it off as their own work, generally using one of the dozens of online "term-paper mills" that offer high-quality essays for sale on a staggering range of subjects. Perhaps most distressing, 44 per cent of the students said they see nothing wrong with cribbing material from the Internet.
Today's college students grew up with the World Wide Web, and many of them barely remember a world without it. Most wouldn't dare steal a DVD from a store shelf, but downloading the latest video release to watch with some friends is no big deal. Ask them if they consider it stealing, and they'll look at you like you're crazy. Why would buying a term paper or copying someone else's thesis be any different? They've come to expect that if it's available online, it's theirs to do with as they choose.
Of course, there are more insidious creatures in cyberspace than frat boys buying term papers. The Internet opened the floodgates to myriad forms of petty dishonesty, but real criminals looked upon its shroud of anonymity and saw an even greater opportunity. They made the Net a playground for their kind: hackers, spammers and con men. Stories of Trojan-horse programs stealing your passwords, worms burrowing into your hard drive, and spyware tracking your every move barely raise eyebrows anymore. We not only accept them, we expect them.
This year, Consumer Reports estimated that American consumers lost more than US$8 billion over the past two years to various online scams, and that approximately one in three Internet users will fall victim to some sort of cybercrime in the course of a year, ranging from minor inconveniences, like small viruses affecting computer performance, to major frauds. Email fraud alone cost consumers US$630 million between 2004 and 2005.
David Wall is head of the School of Law at the University of Leeds in England, and recently finished a book called Cyber Crimes, to be released next year. He says that the world of crooks and con men has been forever changed by the evolution of the Internet. "The Internet has fundamentally changed crime, in that there is no longer any need to pull off a $1-million robbery, because it's now possible to do a million one-dollar robberies instead," he says. He points to spam as an example. Taken in isolation, each individual spam email is nothing but a minor irritation. But taken as a whole it represents a massive, multi-million-dollar industry, much of it based on luring the gullible into fraudulent schemes.
Thanks to the Internet, it's no longer necessary for con men to spend time and effort identifying potential victims. Just blast out 100,000 emails and wait for the suckers to come to you. It doesn't matter if 99.9 per cent smell a rat. There's money to be made from exploiting the most gullible person in a thousand. Then there is the darker side, Wall says. The Internet has also proven to be a very effective tool for grooming young individuals either for sexual purposes or for violent ones. We know, for example, that extremist groups around the world have turned to the Internet as a powerful recruiting tool. We know that detailed instructions on a wide range of illicit activities, from making crystal meth to building a bomb, are just a simple search away. And the sexual victimization of children online continues to happen at an alarming rate. Last month, the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center released a poll that suggested 13 per cent of Web users between the ages of 10 and 17 had received unwanted sexual solicitations online at some point during the past year. Believe it or not, that was considered good news, as it was down from 19 per cent in 2000. But "aggressive solicitations," meaning situations in which a potential stalker had attempted to make contact with the child off-line, held steady at four per cent.
And yet, when it comes to protecting their kids, most parents have been slow to respond. According to the Alexandria, Va.-based Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only about a third of families use filtering or blocking software to monitor what their kids are doing online. A recent poll by Teenage Research Unlimited found 39 per cent of those polled said their parents know "very little" or "nothing" about what they do online.
Perhaps that's because we've become inured to the dangers of cyberspace in an incredibly short period of time, and once we grow accustomed to being violated, it erodes the sense that we, or anyone else, actually have a right to online security. If you lived in a neighbourhood where your child had a better than one-in-10 chance of being sexually propositioned on the street, and one out of every three people would be the victim of a crime in any given year, you'd almost certainly move if you could. But on the Internet, those odds are considered acceptable as long as we can continue to get instant updates on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Clark Sampson, founder of Netspace, one of the earliest dot-coms, said the Internet would change everything and everyone, and it has. But change is not always progress. For everything the Web has simplified, accelerated and proliferated, there is at least as much that it has destroyed, and we can't say we weren't warned.
The 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil, by renowned computer systems expert Clifford Stoll, now stands as one of the most prescient warnings about all we had to lose to the Internet. In it, Stoll wrote that the rampant idealism that accompanied the Internet into the mainstream would end in disappointment. He recognized then what has since become obvious: what we thought of as a means of making connections is actually a deeply isolating and insular medium. Online community is an oxymoron along the lines of virtual reality. "The computer hucksters have promoted a digital world which will not come to pass," Stoll said. As for the promise that simply by opening the lines of communication humanity would lay down arms and sing Kumbaya: "There are no simple technological solutions to social problems. There's plenty of distrust and animosity between people who communicate perfectly well. Access to a universe of information cannot solve our problems: we will forever struggle to understand one another."
And from now on, we will struggle within a wired world. The Internet cost us trillions of dollars, and far more than that, but there's no going back. It is now so deeply entrenched in our culture-in the way we speak and work and create and think-that the only thing to do is to try to make it better, and hope that maybe we might somehow realize some of the dreams the idealists had when they invented the thing.
Still, you can't help but wonder, what else might we have done with all that time and money if we hadn't blown it on the Internet?
Maclean's October 30, 2006