Was the Internet a Good Idea?

I remember clearly my first inkling of something new called the world wide web.  I had recently started using email and two colleagues brought me a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication describing a new information system.   One would be able to use a computer and software that would “crawl” about looking for information stored on other computers.  The idea of a “search engine” seemed all too incredible.  While I had been using computers in a work environment since 1974 and my graduate research had entailed three boxes full of IBM keypunch cards, the prospect of “web searches” was unbelievable.

One remarkable aspect of this technology was how little we questioned it, both at the time and since.  The underlying technology for the internet was developed by the Department of Defense and promoted by the rest of the Federal government.  The unquestioning acceptance of a new technology was an aberration at the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s society had developed a healthy skepticism of new technologies.  Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was just one of many efforts to consider carefully the social, economic, and environmental implications of adopting new technologies.  The formal version of technology skepticism was a new technique call technology assessment.  The idea of technology assessment was that all technologies had positive and negative consequences for society.  These consequences needed to be evaluated before the technology was adopted.  Innovation was not always a good thing for society.  The importance of this technique was marked by the creation of an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) for the U.S. Congress in 1972.  The office was to provide Congress with unbiased analyses of new technologies so that public policy could be applied to enhance benefits and mitigate adverse effects.  As in the cases of the supersonic transport plane (SST) and the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programs, Congress might even choose not to pursue some new technologies.

The OTA was eliminated by Congress in 1995 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.  Questioning new technology as a matter of public policy had become passé; the free market would decide what technology should be developed and how it should grow.  Of course the idea of the “free market” entailed the freedom of firms to lobby governments to support and encourage the technologies of those particular firms, which they commonly did.  Economists call this rent seeking behavior.

So there was no formal technology assessment of the internet.  It developed in the dog-eat-dog world of Silicon Valley and the other hot spots of technology innovation.  But we can still do an informal assessment retrospectively.  We can tally the positive and negative features of the internet in our lives.  We can think about how we might have controlled and directed the evolution of the technology in the public interest rather than in the interest of those private entrepreneurs who made those decisions without public participation.

(As an aside, by this point you are starting to think about the irony of asking this question using a medium that is archetypical of the internet – a blog post.  I too am keenly aware of this irony.)

Let’s start our retrospective assessment with a tally of positive outcomes to date.  Information is dramatically easier to find than ever in human history. Of course inaccurate information access has exploded as well. Entertainment options abound with the ability to listen to and watch unprecedented variety of content. It is easier to stay in contact with people wherever we are, whenever we want.  Shopping is more efficient and choices of things to purchase are staggering.  And you can use your smart phone to control just about everything in your home, from temperature control, to locks, and even to picturing your refrigerator contents to see if you need to buy milk.  This internet of things, voice recognition technology, and virtual reality were imaginable only in science fiction a few years ago.  The internet both makes life easier and sometimes is just incredibly fascinating.  How do they do that?

Contrast this access to vast information resources and ubiquitous communication potential to the negative outcomes.  There has been an explosion of consumption of pornography (by some accounts still the largest use of the internet) and dramatic increases in engagement with violent games.  Brand new types of criminal activity are now possible, including cyber bullying and identify theft, virtually unheard of before the internet.  It is easier to steal people’s money than ever before.

A whole generation of children has been raised who are now emotionally tethered to technology and increasingly disengaged with the natural world.  (See on this topic the excellent book Last Child in the Woods.)  The new emphasis on virtual reality will only exacerbate this, making simple reality less important in people’s lives.  There are some analysts willing to link the addictive properties of internet-based technologies with the growing obesity and Type II diabetes epidemics in our society.  Even more clear is how these technologies have contributed to the growth of income inequality in our society.  Access to and facility with the new technologies increasingly defines economic haves and have nots.  Internet technology is probably responsible for more manufacturing job losses than any free trade agreements, as technology has replaced labor in U.S. manufacturing facilities.

These are obviously incomplete lists.  You can think of your own costs and benefits attributed to the development of the internet.  New technologies always bring good and bad, even though we continue to be enamored with innovation in our society.  Innovation is not a good thing in and of itself.  We can ask now:  Would we have embraced this new technology so whole-heartedly twenty-five years ago had we thought through all of its implications?  Might we have worked to channel its development differently had we done a thorough technology assessment?

I don’t know whether all the costs of the internet are worth being able to see a picture of the inside of my refrigerator on a smart phone or to find out on YouTube who sang Rama Lama Ding Dong.  I do know that we would have been better served had we asked the hard questions about this new technology before we unleashed it unbridled on our culture.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.