Friday, December 16, 2016
Guardian | This blended universe is a strange place, simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. It provides its users – ordinary citizens – with services, delights and opportunities that were once the prerogative only of the rich and powerful. Wikipedia, the greatest store of knowledge the world has ever seen, is available at the click of a mouse. Google has become the memory prosthesis for humanity. Services such as Skype and FaceTime shrink intercontinental distances for families and lovers. And so on.
But at the same time, everything we do on the network is monitored and surveilled by both governments and the huge corporations that now dominate cyberspace. (If you want to see the commercial side of this in action, install Ghostery in your browser and see who’s snooping on you as you surf.) Internet users are assailed by spam, phishing, malware, fraud and identity theft. Corporate and government databases are routinely hacked and huge troves of personal data, credit card and bank account details are stolen and offered for sale in the shadows of the so-called “dark web”. Companies – and public institutions such as hospitals – are increasingly blackmailed by ransomware attacks, which make their essential IT systems unusable unless they pay a ransom. Cybercrime has already reached alarming levels and, because it largely goes unpunished, will continue to grow – which is why in some societies old-style physical crime is reducing as practitioners move to the much safer and more lucrative online variety.
“All human life is there” was once the advertising slogan for the now-defunct News of the World. It was never true of that particular organ, which specialised mostly in tales of randy vicars, celebrity love triangles, the foolishness of lottery winners and similar dross. But it is definitely true of the internet, which caters for every imaginable human interest, taste and obsession. One way of thinking about the net is as a mirror held up to human nature. Some of what appears in the mirror is inspiring and heart-warming. Much of what goes on online is enjoyable, harmless, frivolous, fun. But some of it is truly repellent: social media, in particular, facilitate firestorms of cruelty, racism, hatred and hypocrisy – as liberals who oppose the Trump campaign in the US have recently discovered. For a crash course in this darker side of human nature, read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and weep.
S o we find ourselves living in this paradoxical world, which is both wonderful and frightening. Social historians will say that there’s nothing new here: the world was always like this. The only difference is that we now experience it 24/7 and on a global scale. But as we thrash around looking for a way to understand it, our public discourse is depressingly Manichean: tech boosters and evangelists at one extreme; angry technophobes at the other; and most of us somewhere in between. Small wonder that Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace, once described our condition as that of “informed bewilderment”.