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The Internet: A Culture of Change


It’s time to cap off this week of posts about the Internet, with a broader discussion of the Internet’s capacity for promoting change.

Yesterday, I talked about the Internet’s role in American politics, though I didn’t spend much time on how it has affected social change more generally. There are movements happening all around us that are only effective because the Internet is an available tool. The Arab Spring, for instance, unfolded in large part due to online communication and organization. The BlackLivesMatter movement has been built and sustained with a heavy reliance on the Internet–crucially, phone cameras and the ability to easily share photos and videos from them over the Internet has shone a harsh light on how policing is carried out in the US. Images and videos from Ferguson, from Baltimore, from all over the country have helped build a national movement against racist policing. This has resulted in a broader push for body cameras for police, along with other measures to check police and judicial power. Our culture of mass incarceration and prison privatization is receiving more attention than it has in decades. Change–even with the help of the Internet–is slow, but it looks like it’s coming, step by step.

There are, however, downsides. The Internet has opened up vast new avenues for government surveillance. The governments of the US and many other countries capture and analyze all the online traffic they can get their hands on, and while most would shrug and say they have nothing to hide, it’s impossible to know what information might be used against anyone in the future. The Internet has also been a critical recruiting tool for the Islamic State, which has used Twitter accounts, various blogs, and video sites to spread their hateful, violent message and attract new jihadists. Cyber warfare is no longer a science fiction concept, either. Stuxnet, for instance, is perhaps the most sophisticated piece of malicious software ever written. It was created to destroy Iranian uranium centrifuges in order to thwart Iran’s attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, and was highly successful in that endeavor. What is extremely concerning, however, is how such technologies might be developed by other governments or individuals, and how those tools could be used to inflict harm. When everything is connected to a network, it becomes possible to shut down whole cities, even whole countries, just with a bit of clever software. Fortunes can be wiped out, life support systems can be shut off, human activity–so reliant on technology–can be quickly ground to a halt. Imagine an event like the northeast blackout of 2003, but done intentionally through the use of malicious software, and with such software designed to defend itself so that the grid can’t easily be brought back online. Basic infrastructure could be taken offline for days, or much longer. Defenses against such attacks will be critical in the future.

On the other hand, we’re also seeing more potential for resilience through redundancy. Power can be generated in a variety of ways. Networks can be quickly built in a “mesh” structure, in which no central hub is needed to manage traffic. During disasters, the Internet has frequently been an invaluable tool for communication and coordination for both individuals seeking rescue or escape, and emergency services attempting to do their jobs. Portable power generators, mobile phone towers, and network ports can be deployed in disasters to keep everyone connected and thus better able to respond to events as they develop. This is another area where the full potential of the technologies and tools available have yet to be exploited.

The Internet has been described as a tool that flattens hierarchies. What does this mean? In many ways, it helps set a level playing field: you can get your tweets out to just as many people as anyone else as long as you’ve built the right contacts, and doing that is easier than ever. Your reach isn’t based on how much money you have, but how many people want to hear (and spread) what you have to say. This can be used to spread ideas, develop consensus, and form plans of action in ways that traditional forms of activism and public debate could only dream of.

On a more personal level, the possibilities opened by the Internet have improved the lives of countless people. Many marriages and long-term relationships and friendships have come about from it, of course, but it has also let people find help that otherwise couldn’t; it’s allowed communities to form where once were isolated individuals; it has given us access to unfathomable amounts of information.

It is also, a lot of the time, still a barely-functional, disorganized mess. I suppose that’s part of the charm. Things break all the time. Old sites are lost, although the Wayback Machine does what it can to prevent such digital decay. Companies–along with their online services–go out of business and new ones gobble up their assets, or leave them to vanish from us forever. As much as the Internet has matured, as a tool for communication and commerce, it is still very young–much is still in flux. For those of us who grew up with it, it has taught us to embrace and accept change. The Internet of today is not the Internet of 5 years ago, nor will it be the same in another few years. New technologies will come along–virtual reality hardware finally looks set to deliver on its promises of the last 25 or so years–and old ones won’t quite disappear, but they might be shuffled off to the back, creaking along for another decade or two before someone notices long enough to pull the plug.

Thanks to the Internet, one of the major conflicts of the twenty-first century is likely to be that of control over how change is accomplished. Governments and entrenched interests will want to manage and reduce change. A calm status quo is easier to deal with. But people around the world are waking up to the tools at their disposal, and using them to wrest control and force change, regardless of what those in power desire. The kinds of human networks the Internet permits also challenge our ideas about cultural and national boundaries. The decay of nationalism as an ideology upon which to base governing states has left a vacuum that the Internet is quickly filling. It should not come as a surprise that we are seeing a massive revival in identity politics–these may well be the new tribal markers that hold groups together, rather than more traditional national identifiers. It’s hard to say whether all this will be for better or worse, in the end. It may, on balance, just be different.

Change, though, is something the Internet helps you get used to.

Photo by chintermeyer