There was a moment in the X Files that bolted me upright, the hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention. Perennial movie villain Armin Mueller-Stahl addresses his secret organisation colleagues about a genetically engineered food experiment gone wrong and intones, “We are but beggars to our own demise.”
At the time, the summer of 1998, I felt that way about the Internet, which, in part, had helped “kill” the magazine I edited. If someone else could “publish” online in seconds a product review that I could not deliver in print in less than 90 days, there was one reason why we didn’t have enough advertisers or subscribers. I’d promoted this “Internet thing” in my magazine, and now that magazine was gone, along with my rather nice job, a victim of my own doing.
With the passage of time and a bit of reflection, I’ve come to see —the magazine debacle notwithstanding—that the Internet is as much of a blessing as a bane to society. In fact, for millions of people around the world, the Internet is a vital part of their daily existence, delivering as much good and more, than it does bad.
It has its downside, of which we hear much—pornography and online gambling, for example, but you can read about that somewhere else this time.
Of its benefits, four categories of benefit stand out. There are more.
1. It provides instant communication—to almost anywhere.
If something happens in Washington, or Baghdad, or Hobart or even Tierra del Fuego or the South Pole, it can be instantly communicated around the globe with a few keystrokes. Digital media preparation and presentation can flash photos online in seconds.
This ability to spread news quickly can have massive effects—good and bad. A 14-year-old in Hong Kong stitched together a webpage that looked like the site of a local newspaper. In it he said the city was going to be quarantined over the SARS situation. As a result, stock prices fell on the local exchange, some panic buying ensued and the government sent out approximately six million emails to combat the rumour.
On the other hand, as the Year 2000 dawned in the Pacific, word flashed around the globe that things were going well in each time zone as local computer clocks rolled over to the new millennium. There was no need to panic. Now that’s a good thing.
As illustrated by the teenager in Hong Kong, a good thing can go bad, but having access to information quickly and from authoritative sources (the Sydney Morning Herald, let’s say, versus a less-known web site), can stop rumours in their tracks, while keeping a world hungry for information well fed.
A corollary to this is now the ability for time-shifting communication. The editor of this magazine is about 10 time zones away from the writer of this article. While there are periods of the day when we both are at our desks, there is a far greater period of time in which we are each alone on duty. Using email lets me communicate at my pace, while the editor can then respond at his. Once I’m back at my desk (or he at his), we can open and answer the other’s emails. Even with the time difference, this is easier and quicker than any other method of communication—far faster than the old-world habit of “snail mail,” known as the post to many of us!
2. It gives greater access to more knowledge.
Recently I was in a bookstore looking at new almanacs. I was ready to buy one until it occurred to me, just about any piece of information I might need is but a few keystrokes away—fresher and faster than any book—on the Internet. The Internet, through search engines such as Google, and services like RefDesk.com, Britannica.com (and dozens of others), I can access information as quickly as I desire.
Though some might consider such a treatment slothful (“In my day, we had to walk half an hour to the library and we were glad to do so!”), for those who are pressed for time, stressed for resources or don’t have access to the books and ephemera found in larger cities, the Internet is a heaven-sent blessing of inestimable magnitude.
The practical outworkings of such knowledge access may never be fully known. But it’s been well documented that increased access to health information is making patients better prepared for consultations with their often-harried doctor, surgeon or medical specialist. When a patient (or family member) walks in with an understanding of a given ailment, time is saved and healing can often begin more quickly. Sometimes, even, the visit itself is avoided.
In business, you are only as good as the latest data. Having a global “network of networks”—which the Internet is—as a resource allows many a business person (myself included) to double-check things before a presentation, or even while a meeting is in progress. The Internet, clearly, provides many benefits to those seeking fast access to data and information, whether for business, education or personal use.
It is an especially valuable service to shut-ins, who, with some coaching, can virtually walk the globe, visiting all manner of places and browsing a huge range of information right from their home.
While there is far more knowledge available to the home (or business) user than ever before, the old Russian rubric, “Trust but verify” has never been more salient. Just as we place a greater trust in certain newspapers, journals and magazines than others (The Age, say, over a tabloid), one needs to be aware of the integrity of web sites. But here, too, the Internet comes to the rescue: with a little practice and patience, you can find reliable reference sources and thus navigate a good path through the wired world.
Factories and merchants now connect directly, cutting shipping time and saving money in many ways. But, even more important, the benefits of the Internet are there for small and remote business communities.
Conflict of interests
In June 2003, the US Supreme Court upheld a law requiring public libraries to include anti-pornography filters in their computers, upholding the country’s Children’s Internet Protection Act.
“Libraries should be safe-zones of quiet and learning for children,” said Family Research Council president Ken Connor. “No filtering software is going to work 100 per cent of the time, and when necessary, sites that are mistakenly blocked can be unblocked. On the other hand, it may take a lifetime to undo the damage suffered by a child exposed to an obscene image.”
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) also welcomed the decision. “We’re delighted that the Supreme Court determined that the government does have a compelling interest to protect children from pornography on the Internet,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ.
On the other hand, Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s intellectual freedom office, said, “In light of this, we expect libraries that decide they must accept filters to inform their patrons how easily the filters can be turned off.” The association was concerned that the law amounted to censorship and that filters would also block valuable information.
—Adelle Banks, RNS, in Crosswalk
3. It affords wider commercial opportunity.
For example, take the case of Mata Ortiz, a small and remote village in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Twenty-five years ago, it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. Business had dried up, the railway had stopped running and poverty was rampant.
But Juan Quezada, a local man, kept thinking about the shards of pottery he found in hiking around the area. Inspired by tales of the great artisans of his area of years gone, he began to duplicate their potting techniques. Practise and patience yielded success; he taught others in the community to make the beautiful, intricate designs that have become collector’s items worldwide.
In the past couple of years, however, the Quezada family and others in Mata Ortiz have used the Internet, specifically an auction site called eBay, to market their wares. Collectors can bid and buy with the click of a mouse, export companies now make the trek the railway stopped making, and the families of Mata Ortiz no longer worry about poverty, instead using a Toyota ute to give their tired burros a break.
The Quezadas and their neighbours credit the Internet with enhancing their success and their industry. And this is not a unique situation: other people in other places are starting successful businesses online to market artworks and other crafts to a global audience.
Having the ability to market what was once sold only locally to a global audience can only help world trade and engender international understanding. Mail order has been a staple worldwide since the 19th-century beginnings of international mail; now, however, the commerce can be far more interactive and immediate.
4. It opens the door to other cultures.
You can censor or block postal mail. Radio stations can be jammed. And while some countries—notably China—try to block web sites, the Internet can get into many, many more places than one might imagine.
That’s helped people find music from unknown or hard-to-locate artists within seconds; to read writings of authors and poets from other cultures; and it has enabled religions to share their faith and point of view across the world.
While fanatic Muslims threaten jihad on Middle Eastern sites, neo-Nazis threaten everyone on US sites. But in Norway, the email exchange a person has with an evangelical pastor in New Jersey leads to their conversion. In isolated Bangladesh and Congo, missionaries get official instructions from their headquarters in seconds, and for a few cents, as opposed to the uncertainties, weeks and dollars of a courier service or regular mail.
Since British scientist Tim Berners-Lee innocuously launched the Age of the Internet on August 6, 1991, with the world’s first web site, its use and misuse has proliferated exponentially. Its use benefits millions, even those not connected directly through an enhanced business and government sector that’s better and more quickly informed. It has brought the familiar and unfamiliar closer, and despite its negatives made life easier and better for all.