6 February 2012

The Internet: Influence and Limitations

The internet a massive resource with attendant dangers

The internet has brought about the single biggest expansion in freedom of communication in the age of market fundamentalism. This is exceptional because in the last three decades nearly every other indicator of social progress has gone into reverse: the size and influence of civic organisations, moves to advance social equality and security, traditional civic freedoms, etc.

Of course the internet has facilitated not just left-wing political communication, but also other hitherto restricted topics of communication, particularly minority sexual interests. The main channels of internet communication are email messages, discussion boards and internet sites. The ability to find information has multiplied a thousand-fold.

Some people say that the internet is the cause of a decline in face-to-face political contacts. I don’t think so. Rare is the socialist who prefers writing facebook messages to having the discussion face-to-face. The fact is the internet substitutes when face-to-face contact is impossible, as letters and telephone calls did in an earlier age.

For me the three main dangers of politics on the internet are these:

First, the internet not only allows political communication widely and relatively freely but also facilitates near total state surveillance of the correspondence of activists. Yet in the liberal democracies if one is already known as a left-wing activist, this hardly makes a difference.

Second, there is always the danger of the internet being made unavailable in whole or in part, as the recent attempted suppression of FitWatch and WikiLeaks has shown. Common sense dictates that people should prepare for that eventuality, though I doubt whether many people actually do that.

Third, there is something more subtle and insidious. When we communicated more in printed articles, reading a five thousand word article was a normal occurrence. Who does that easily or willingly on the net? We have become accustomed to reading no more than a few hundred words in an on-line post or article, before clicking and moving on. That attention-span deficiency has affected the whole way in which we acquire and structure information.


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