Internet is one of the least and incorrectly understood concepts. Many lies, propaganda, and misconceptions about Internet are circulated. So, what impact did Internet make on our planet’s culture?
Let me begin with a brief overview of Internet’s history:
1966. US Department of Defense develops ARPANET as means to interconnect defense and science facilities.
1969. The very first message is transmitted over ARPANET.
1971. Abhai Bhushan introduces FTP protocol for exchanging files.
1978.Ward Christensen and Randy Suess create the very first BBS.
1979. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis create USENET – a network for transmitting messages via modems.
1986. Brian Kantor and Phil Lapsley create NNTP protocol for exchanging messages.
1989. Tim Berners-Lee creates HTTP protocol for accessing hypertext documents.
1991. Mark MacCahill et al create gopher protocol for accessing files and documents.
1980-1993 гг. Tim Berners-Lee develops HTML standard.
1994. Steve Kirsch founds Infoseek search engine.
Jerry Young and David Filo found Yahoo! search engine.
1995. DEC introduces Altavista search engine.
Kevin O’Connor and Dwight Merriman found DoubleClick advertising company.
Rasmus Lerdorf introduces PHP scripting language.
1996. Internet Consortium releases CSS standard.
1998. Larry Page and Sergei Brin found Google search engine.
Daniel Levin et al found the content delivery company Akamai.
2000. phpBB forum software is released.
2001. vBulletin forum software is released.
Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger found Wikipedia online encyclopedia.
2004. Mark Zukerberg founds Facebook social media company.
2006. John Resig releases Jquery library.
Jack Dorsey, Noah Glas, Christopher Stone, and Evan Williams found Twitter social media company.
2008. Geoff Atwood and Joseph Spolsky found question-and-answer site Stack Exchange.
2010. Google releases Angular JS framework.
2013. Facebook releases React JS framework.
Approximately since then, Internet may be considered mature and modern. Not much has changed since. These are only the most important events in the history of Internet. It does not lay a claim for completeness, and many different opinions may exist about which events are impactful. The above events are important for the purpose of this article.
During the advent of mass adoption of Internet, BBS could be installed by anyone, anywhere a phone connection was available. Only a software and a modem were required for the BBS to work. This was too nice, and by the 2000s many phone lines switched to VOIP, which narrowed the bandwidth of the voice phone connection and inhibited modem connections above 2400 BPS, whereas real analogue and digital phone lines had allowed 56K BPS or higher rates.
Before the mass adoption of Internet, USENET and subsequently NNTP had allowed anyone to subscribe to topical streams of news called newsgroups. They were, for the most part, stored and distributed by all Internet providers. Although a newsgroup could be moderated, which initially was achieved by prepending mod.* prefix to its name and later appending *.moderated suffix to it, most were unmoderated. This was too nice, and NNTP was destroyed by the nes technology referred to as SPAM, which was claimed to be spontaneous initiative of the random users. As a result, most internet providers dropped their own NNTP servers.
FTP also provides access to files to anyone with a user name and a password. To run an FTP server and provide access to files, one needs no programming. Only a server software has to be installed. This was too nice, and recently FTP access was removed from the popular browsers Chrome and Firefox. With one strike of Del key, the largest advertising monopoly Google deprived many users access to file stored on FTP.
As soon as virtually unlimited Internet access was provided to the general public they inevitably began to influence each other: both the society and the network began to morph. For as long as only scientists, university students, and researchers had access, the communication over the network remained civilized, for the most part, and it adhered to the principles of the civilized society: ethic, plurality of opinions, and respect of the opponent. As soon as entrepreneurs and the general public got access, all of it became forgotten.
NNTP newsgroups fell the first victim: the deluge of spam and obscenity generally referred to as trolling flooded them. Being hopeful of earning 0.1% more, not-so-bright entrepreneurs proceeded to disseminate the ads of their goods and services to any newsgroup whose users they hoped to coax into buying. The end result was predictable: NNTP still exists, but nobody uses it. The newsgroups are now void of messages. And it is not even about the convenience of new technologies. No! Social networks do not offer any advantages: it is just that train had left the station, and the money flows have been routed to the centralized solution versus the distributed one.
Next, many kinds of forums sprouted everywhere. They are not necessarily sites with many topical areas. Commends under some blog are also a forum. Originally, many forums were anonymous and unmoderated, but spammers invaded them too, and moderation became a widespread must; therefore, costly. Naturally, an incentive was created for the forum owners to outsource the moderation to the users themselves, which inevitably attracted those individuals to the ranks of moderators who were originally predisposed to it. Yes, they belong to the same category as law enforcement officers, with all respective consequences. They possess insatiable urge to intrude and silence everyone whose point of view does not match their own. Unlike the law enforcement, moderators do not possess the qualities that could qualify them for such job: courage, persistence, subordination, or the readiness to play by the rules. All of it does not look good: Internet attracts and nourished the worst of the worst and created an army of control freaks.
The typical manifestations of militant moderation are familiar to many: unfounded bans, slandering of users, provocations, sock puppets, and preferential treatment of one category of users over others.
Another psychological affect of Internet is the cultivation of elevated expectations of instant satisfaction of users’ needs. Search engines offer ready solutions, without the need to study subject matter or to monitor its domain for news. Porn sites offer sexual gratification, without the need to search for a sexual partner, bear corresponding expenses, develop social skills, or take responsibility for one’s actions. Online shopping allowed goods to be ordered and delivered within days if not hours. Several generations were born that do not possess patience but have an expectation of immediate satisfaction.
An opportunity to express one’s opinions anonymously was touted as the highest degree of freedom of thought and speech, but it only lasted in the early days of the advancement of Internet. Subsequently, many of its users became convinced that such service allows them not only to express but also to impose their ideas on others and also to make short work of anyone who espouses different opinions. Little by little, this concept developed into cancel culture. The reason is obvious: anyone who is present on the Internet under their real name is vulnerable to anonymous users. The latter obtain the power to demean, insult, and slander the former, mostly with impunity, online and in real life. Several generations were born that are devoid of the sense of responsibility for their actions.
The typical manifestations of cancel culture are rude attacks, revenge for difference in opinions, using fake accounts for slandering opponents, taking remarks out of context, and many more.
The former concept has another consequence. It cultivates the mentality that only one’s own opinion is valid, whereas the rest have no reason to exist. This is not a deviation from the norm but a natural attribute of any evolving living being. However, in the normal human society such point of view is subject to limitations and control by its other members. By witnessing examples of other successful members of society, the given specimen learns to absorb those successful ideas and to change its behaviour accordingly. As a result, both the society and the specimen perfect themselves. Internet broke this mechanism by cutting the chain of cause and effect between the expression of one’s opinion and the consequences of that. In simple terms, one can express opinions on the Internet, without noticing their flaws. Several generations were born that subscribe to flawed opinions, without having a way of knowing it.
The typical manifestations of unfounded convictions are statements along the lines of: ‘Something works for me; therefore it must work for you. I have no problems with something; therefore, no one must’.
It is Internet that introduced the technology of assigning ranks to its users based on reputation and of providing different levels of service accordingly. This has become a powerful incentive for the exclusion of a considerable segment of society from productive participation in the economics and public life. Several generations were born that spend considerable time online with the sole purpose of inflating their imaginary rating.
It is virtually impossible to use Internet without search engines because the content has to be associated with its address. Initially, there were many: Archie, Lycos, Infoseek, Altavista, Yahoo, WebCrawler, and others. One after another, they ceased their operations or switched to different business models. For all practical purposes, there is now only one: Google. Bing cannot make it despite similar functionality. The monopoly for an opportunity to be found costs a lot, and Google hawks over such monopoly, by any means available. “Any” carries important meaning. Some might recall the now missing ‘list’ command of nslookup. For some reason, the humankind made a U-turn and now considers monopoly on searching on the Internet a new norm. The efforts by the EU do not appear serious and change very little in the big picture. Several generations were born that do not notice total control of the information or that consider it normal because it does not impact them personally until someone comes for them.
Overall, the economic model of Internet has nothing in common with the principles of plurality of opinions and freedom of expression that we used to subscribe to. An opportunity to concentrate power over access to information that Internet has presented to the most rich and influential individuals and organizations on our planet inevitably became a powerful stimulus for using the network to subject the users to the interests of the controlling entities. The technology of moderation and trolling have risen to industrial scale, and entire companies earn profit on the Internet, by renting out troll farms that flood the media space with deluge of attacks, insults, fallacies, and slander. Several generations of entrepreneurs were born that are convinced that they can stealthily manipulate public opinion, with impunity, and to suppress discord by the above mentioned and some even dirtier means.
Why do I only write about things negative? Where is the good? There is a lot of good! Internet provide an opportunity to develop many fields of human economy, and these opportunities are in plain sight of everyone. I have mentioned some of them above, even though it may not be obvious. But lots were written about them, whereas the growth pains of Internet should be reviewed more often and in greater detail. One might be under impression that they are mostly psychological, but it is not so. There are real, tangible, technical shortcomings that we should be concerned about, but few do.
For Internet to exist, computational and communication resources are required. Both use mineral, energy, and human resources. Copper remains one of the most important ones. Electric signals that carry information travel across copper wires. Yes, of late, the ever more expensive copper is being replaced with cheap glass. This is great! But how much copper is still buried in the ground and walls, and how much more will be, to sate the demands of ever growing Earth’s population for ever more heavy content? For how much longer can we sustain it? It is about time we pause to think whether human civilization can afford to bloat the resolution of its videos and images.
The typical manifestations of inefficient software are slow loading of pages and high CPU, GPU, and memory utilization, on the server and client, for each request.
So, let us take a deep breath: Internet has undone decades if not centuries of the progress of humankind in some areas, but few noticed it.
To conclude, I want to stress that this short article only touches upon serious problems in the interaction of Internet and human civilization. These problems deserve at least some attention, for which I thank you.