Blame the Internet!

I don’t understand some of the writers employed by the Washington Post. Maybe they’ve been living inside the bubble of the infamous “beltway” too long. Or possibly they’re trying to write satire and the point never gets across.

Take, for example, a column from today’s paper that starts with the line “If I could, I would repeal the Internet.”. The writer’s primary thesis, as best I can determine, seems to be that the “terrifying danger” posed by the threat of cyberwar far outweighs the “relatively modest” benefits of the web.

He then goes on to lay out a variety of doomsday possibilities (disruption of the power grid, decimation of the financial system, Chinese hackers, etc.) to be brought about by the Internet, evidently drawn from a report, a book, and conversations with cybersecurity experts (all of whom profit from worst case scenarios).

And then he ends the column with this conclusion.

All this qualifies our view of the Internet. Granted, it’s relentless. New uses spread rapidly. Already, 56 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones and 34 percent have tablets, says the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing – and the mix may be moving against us. [my emphasis]

Another shortsighted pundit placing total blame for a problem (or potential problem in this case) on the technology involved rather than on the other, more human factors of how it’s used. And ignoring the fact that digital networks are a relatively recent invention (especially the part where everyone can have access) and we are only at the beginning of their evolution and application.

A similar reasoned, logical argument* could also have been made for those earlier, life-changing breakthroughs he lists, plus ships, trains, chemistry, the telephone, television and many more. Especially early in their lifetimes when society was working its way through the disruptions they caused.

You can debate the benefits of having a ubiquitous, always on communications network available in every home and classroom (which it’s not, yet). Certainly we need to address many problems in the way the technology is used, with some people doing very silly and even stupid things with the power they have.

However, only someone who has not been paying attention over the past fifteen years or so could declare that the internet has not enabled many fundamental, positive changes for society.

I wonder if the editor responsible for this columnist thought he was kidding.

Update (later today): David Weinberger suggests we repeal the First Amendment and oxygen using the same reasoning as the Post writer, then provides a MadLibs version to do the same for anything you don’t like. You too can be a Washington columnist.

* That was an attempt at satire, in case it wasn’t obvious. :-)