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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 22, 2009

WHY THE INTERNET WORKS. . . AND DOESN'T

Guardian, UK - The second day of the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford began with contrasting optimistic and pessimistic views of the internet. Jonathan Zittrain, who recently wrote the cautionary book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, decided to paint an optimistic view of the internet and its future.

Discussing the creators of the internet, he said that they built the foundation for this global network despite facing a huge difficulty:

They had no money to build it "but they had an amazing freedom. They didn't have to make any money from it. The internet has no business plan. There is no firm responsible for building it."

In many ways, the internet should not work. As late as 1992, IBM said that it wasn't possible to build a corporate network using internet protocol.

Zittrain said the mascot of the internet is the bumble bee. It shouldn't be able to fly, but a recently government-funded program discovered how bees fly: They flap their wings really fast.

The internet works on a process that Zittrain compared to passing a beer to a person in a mosh pit. "This system relies on kindness and trust. This makes [the internet] rare and vulnerable."

Wikipedia also shouldn't work, according to Zittrain. "Wikipedia is an idea so profoundly stupid that even Jimbo [Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales] didn't have it," he said. Wikipedia was originally a way for editors of another project, Newpedia, to collaborate. But the backroom eventually took over the front room.

He showed how Wikipedians debate issues, and said that they are making their own law democratically. They decided to remove the real name of the boy who appeared in the Star War Kid YouTube video after his parents requested it. . .

From that optimistic view, Evgeny Morozov countered some of the cyber-utopian ideas that the internet, new media and technology were an unalloyed force for good and democracy.

Morozov, who is from Belarus, worked for an NGO using new media to promote democracy, but he found: "Dictatorships do not crumble so easily. Some get even more repressive."

He started studying how the internet could impede democracy. Cyber-utopians believe that with enough connectivity and devices that democracy will inevitably follow, he said. It was an assumption that underlies what he called "iPod liberalism" that everyone who owns an iPod must be a liberal.

If you believe 'Drop iPods, not bombs', the problem is that it confuses the intended versus actual uses of technology.

Governments are learning that censorship doesn't work but spin does. They are actually encouraging people to share information online. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook actually allowed the Iranian authorities to gather open-source intelligence on networks of anti-government activists.

The KGB used to torture people for weeks to get that information.

Also, he said that while many assume that technology is a catalyst for change, it might also be an opiate for the masses. Governments can engage in meaningless exercises that allow their citizens to believe they have a voice when the exercise itself is meaningless or it gives a government a scapegoat - the public - if the policy fails.

For technology to really be an agent for change, he said we need to stop thinking about computers per capita and start thinking about empowering NGOs and other members of society.

2 Comments:

Anonymous m said...

"In many ways, the internet should not work. As late as 1992, IBM said that it wasn't possible to build a corporate network using internet protocol."

That is because IBM had a competing proprietary technology called Token Ring, not because TCP/IP didn't work well.

July 23, 2009 10:34 AM  
Blogger Gregory Kohs said...

Might want to change "Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales" to more accurately read "Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales".

July 23, 2009 10:45 AM  

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