Friday, February 25, 2011

Unformed thoughts on the Internet

'Digitage Web 2.0' by ocean.flynn (issued under CC-BY-NC-SA license)

As with so many millions of others around the world, the Internet has become a major feature of my life. Not only do I spend a lot of 'leisure' time on it, but I also use it and teach about it to my students every day. This has led to me finding myself more and more these days thinking and talking about what revolutionary times we as a species are living through, probably more so than at any other time in human history.

Just last week, I was talking to a class of my students - teenagers from a range of different countries - about how different my life was from theirs at the same age (there's about a 25-year gap between me and them). At their age, I was working six days a week to save up a measly £2 salary in order to buy bits of plastic with 2-12 songs cut into them. When I wanted to get in touch with someone I didn't see on a regular basis, I had to either sit down and write them a letter or wait until the time was right (either on their side or mine) to make a telephone call. If there was a film I wanted to see, I'd need to wait until it was on television or it was shown in a cinema within accessible distance. I got my news from the volumes of inky paper I put through people's letterboxes every morning before school or by catching one of the televised slots of an evening. To learn new things, I needed to ask other people, go to school, rifle through the books in the house, or wait until the weekend to be able to get a bus to the library in town - not that it could be guaranteed that what I wanted to find would actually be accessible. Every now and then, I'd help out the family by going to the supermarket and carrying home some of the weekly groceries.

25 years is really only a very short time, yet the internet has transformed every one of those activities, and much, much more. The actions playing out in North Africa and the Middle East, too early for commenters to have agreed on an appropriate label yet (revolutions, Arab Spring, pan-Arab uprisings, etc), demonstrate the latest examples of the Internet as a transformative social tool and not just as the facilitator of increased consumption in a dilettante West.

The Industrial Revolution, set in train largely in this country (and still playing out in some parts of the world), must have been a very challenging time to have lived through with the move from the land to the city changing much about people's lives. It would likely have been difficult to imagine where all those changes were heading and how the human landscape would look once the dust settled when in the eye of the storm. Likewise, it is the case with the Digital/Information Revolution (delete as appropriate). The changes that are sweeping through most societies on the planet undoubtedly have much, much more to show us, and in ways that we can't possible imagine at the moment.

I have my own ideas and theories on things as I try and keep my own head above the waters of the bit oceans, but it's definitely helpful to explore what other knowledgeable people are making of it all. This post then, is aimed at exploring some unformed ideas I have about the Network so see how they chime and if getting them down in bits helps them to take better shape. An early draft, if you will. As the Wikipedia page on it says, 'as the digital revolution progresses it remains unclear to what extent society has been impacted and will be altered in the future.'

During a recent evening's surfing, I came across a hefty piece of work that asked a few interesting folk the question 'How has the Internet changed how you think?' I pulled out some of the first quotes that struck a chord with my approach and flagged them up here.
Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become...a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as...the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.

While acknowledging criticisms levelled at the Internet, Shirky recommends collective actions that users should take in order to shape the Internet's future direction, for it to fulfil a great potential that it has. This is one of the reasons that I advocate so strongly in favour of using Creative Commons licences for sharing content online - it's a way of establishing good practise, or 'netiquette'. However, I know that I don't participate enough to get more out of it yet. I still lurk more than I engage. I still treat the Internet in a lot of ways as a broadcast medium, throwing out content in the hope of 'building up an audience' without actually building much of a relationship with people (aside from within the walled garden of my Facebook network or in the odd tweet).
...there is not one massive central computer with lots of satellites...but a distributed network of computers of different sizes, speeds and manufacturers, a network that nobody, literally nobody, ever designed or put together, but which grew, haphazardly, organically, in a way that is not just biological but specifically ecological.

Interestingly, Dawkins looks at the Internet, particularly in how it has evolved, as an organic being - a fascinating perspective on an object that exists both physically (in cables, routers and servers) and virtually (in bits, digits and data packets). In the late 30s, H. G. Wells authored a series of works on a World Brain, being a global information resource and the best chance for world peace - potentially interpretable as a union of Google and Wikipedia. The biological perspective on looking at the Internet is a very alluring one. We could be in the early stages of the development of just what Wells foresaw, being the totality of human knowledge, an entity not only far greater than the sum of its parts but of man's creation and exceeding the marvel of the human brain in its capacity for storage and retrieval. The Internet is far bigger than any of us, but collectively we are the Internet.

'Internet Filters' by Nathan T. Baker (issued under CC-BY-NC-SA license)

Part of the reaction to the growth of this network and all that it allows is to bemoan the horrors of 'information overload' and the effects this is having on attention spans, or the destruction it is causing to traditional business models, or the 'publicisation' of the private sphere. These fears in many cases can be extremely valid, but need not be overwhelming providing we learn new ways of dealing with this new reality in our daily lives. When in deep water, we are faced with three choices - drown, tread water, or swim. So it is with the digital deluge - we let it overwhelm us, we manage and get by, or we learn how to make it work to our advantage (and I mean 'our' not 'my' advantage - the Internet is a reflection of our collective consciousness as a species rather than as a collection of individuals).

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine had the following to say:
We are developing an intense, sustained conversation with this large thing. The fact that it is made up of a million loosely connected pieces is distracting us. The producers of Websites, and the hordes of commenters online, and the movie moguls reluctantly letting us stream their movies, don't believe they are mere pixels in a big global show, but they are. It is one thing now, an intermedia with 2 billion screens peering into it. The whole ball of connections — including all its books, all its pages, all its tweets, all its movies, all its games, all its posts, all its streams — is like one vast global book (or movie, etc.), and we are only beginning to learn how to read it.

These are a few of my unformed thoughts on the Internet and a few slightly more formed thoughts of a few others. How about you - how has the Internet changed how you think?

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