Whenever I need to feel old enough, I remind myself that I lived a significant portion of my life without internet access. For approximately the first 7 years of my life, I had never been on the Internet. Later, we had dial-up, a form of the Internet so useless I don’t remember using it except to look at ecards (remember when those were popular?), usually interrupted by one of my parents needing to use the telephone or fax machine.
So it struck me particularly hard when I read The Internet: Everything You Need to Know, especially when I realized that it was written during a time that I still consider to be part of my “childhood” — the year 2010 was almost a decade ago— someone was already considering how and when the Internet had already become ubiquitous in our lives. I can’t figure out just when it happened to me personally, just that it happened somewhere in between these events. Was it the year I got my first email address? My first use of Google? The first YouTube video I ever saw? (And incidentally where I reached the milestone of learning my first “bad” word.) It’s even harder to pinpoint for society. If I sound old and nostalgic, then you’d hate to hear my boyfriend wax poetic about when instead of YouTube, kids watched Albino Blacksheep during sleepovers— and don’t even get me started on his own father, who fondly recalls the “Wild West” of unregulated online forums.
The author of the article, John Naughton, makes the excellent point that almost all of our reflection on the Internet has been negative. In each instance of nostalgia above one can see that we think our first glimpse of the Internet to be superior to the Internet of today. But despite its flaws, the experience of using the Internet also has many positives that have been deliberately understated by other media. We hardly stop to think how incredible all of this is. I believe that in the future we will find that it wasn’t our fault for being so enamored with the Internet that it resulted in a less productive generation with attention issues, the same way it wasn’t the fault of our grandparent’s generation for becoming habitual smokers at a time when doctors would go on TV and endorse cigarette brands. E.g.
Which is to say two things. First, we’re blessed that this is the historical reality we are born into, rather than smoking, legal slavery, or any number of things that were once quickly turned into realities before their consequences could be realized. Secondly, it’s time to study how the Internet reflects on us, effects that the Internet is having on us, and what the future might hold. That’s what I hope to gain from the course The Internet: Technology, Information, and Issues through University of Mary Washington. For instance, the Introduction in our reading of Net Smart describes the pathways of the Internet increasingly being gated by corporations and governments with interest in controlling digital property, while Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free describes how the very nature of the Internet has people rethinking old systems of intellectual property ownership, a topic I had already become aware of thanks to this video:
Furthermore, we read from Twitter and Tear Gas (which is available for free online), which discusses the first major political disruption that was attributed to the Internet: the so-called “Arab Spring” that began in 2011. Seriously, the book says
An Egyptian friend of mine would later joke that this must have been the first time in history when a person could actually join a revolution by clicking on “I’m Attending” in response to a Facebook e-vite.
Historical awareness of what’s happening in this era can allow us to better face the challenge of making the Internet and related technologies a positive force on the world and an equally great one for everyone.
N.B. I updated this blog post from the first week of the course with the new information gained from reading Twitter and Tear Gas since it was listed as part of this week’s readings and suggested for this writing assignment topic, added some new thoughts and insights gained along the way, and added more media and links, including links to some blog posts I’ve published since I first published this one. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, this post has been edited for grammar/usage and clarity of language.
Fun Update: Albino Blacksheep is apparently still a thing, except now it uses YouTube Videos. Go figure!