Steve Maich has a bone to pick with the Internet and what he sees as the false hope it has promised the world. Where is the revolution we were promised, he asks. Maich claims, “After 15 years and a trillion dollars of investment, just about everything we’ve been told about the Internet and what the information age would mean has come up short.”
The revolution is here and the pioneers of the Internet are to blame for this (love them or hate them). Some issues raised by Maich will be addressed and hopefully we can help him find comfort in the new digital world (a world, ironically, he complains about while using the Web as a medium).
Revolutionary or Overhyped?
Maich criticizes early pioneers of the Internet for calling it a revolutionary invention. He specifically pokes fun at one man (Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow) who compared the Internet to the capture of fire, and further looks down on his colleagues for not laughing at Barlow. But what makes an invention revolutionary and does the Internet meet these standards?
The example used is the washing machine, because the move from hand-washing clothes to machine-washing was a godsend (and therefore presumably “revolutionary” by Maich’s standards). As he says, “Try going back to doing the family’s laundry by hand for one week, and then see if you’d gladly trade your Internet connection to get your washing machine back.” But this argument is flawed.
Yes, I would rather have a washing machine than the Internet. But I would also rather have a washing machine than a car. Does this make the combustion engine an overhyped invention? But what about the electric generator? If I think it is revolutionary, does that mean the washing machine no longer is? All this is silly and boils down to one thing: the revolutionary status of one thing has no necessary connection to the revolutionary nature of another.
The Internet has taken business meetings that would require careful scheduling and expensive plane flights and hotels and made them commonplace through video conferencing. E-mail offers us the ability to exchange more letters in one day than we would have exchanged in months through the postal service. Online shopping gives us access to thousands of stores at all hours of the day, where we can compare prices — again saving both time and money. These are but a few examples that quickly spring to mind.
Maich simplifies e-mail by calling it a modern phone call, he calls online shopping a modern catalog. But one would need many phone calls to do what e-mail can do (and what phone call can send data?). And how many dozens of stacks of catalogs would you need to find the item you can find in miunutes on eBay or Froogle?
If revolutionary means doing things in a way that would not be possible before, are any inventions revolutionary? Aren’t all inventions just old things slightly modified to be more useful?
Wild West or Democracy?
Maich is concerned that “we have constructed a virtual Wild West, where the masses indulge their darkest vices, pirates of all kinds troll for victims, and the rest of us have come to accept that cyberspace isn’t the kind of place you’d want to raise your kids.”
Certainly, vices can be explored online, pirates do trade information and copyrighted material, and children could potentially be at risk if involved in activities they should not be a part of. But these are the most extreme examples and seem to imply that the Internet has no good to offer. Look at the world around you. You will find the same things in the “real world”: predators, people who trade music and movies, and children who try drugs or break the law when their parents aren’t watching. But just as the bad exists, so can every good in the real world be found online, as well. There is no guarantee in life that your children will be safe or that people will be morally responsible — not online, not at school, not anywhere.
We also have the statistic that 12% of the people enrolled in online dating services are married. Again, this is hardly an internet issue but a marriage issue. Other statistics, often seen as conservative, estimate that “60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair.” So there’s really nothing unique about using the internet (rather than a tavern) to accomplish this goal.
Likewise, we can be saddened that the top ten online searches in 2005 were “Janet Jackson, hurricane Katrina, tsunami, xBox 360, Brad Pitt, Michael Jackson, American Idol, Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, and Harry Potter”. Or we can again just look at the magazine rack and see that we are more likely to subscribe to People, Us Weekly or Rolling Stone than The Nation or The Free Republic. We haven’t gotten worse — we’re just moving our trivial time wasting to another arena.
What Maich calls a “Wild West” in a derogatory sense I see also as a positive thing, a new form of democracy. Everyone is able to share their voice (just as I am doing now and Maich was doing in his article). Information is no longer an elite thing; what was once found only in certain universities or libraries can now be shared with everyone. Even music has become democracized: local bands with no record label to support them can now advertise shows on MySpace or send song samples to anyone in the world, giving them exposure that would have been impossible only a decade ago. Perhaps soon, record labels will be a relic of the past (more on this later).
“Pornography” is the first complaint in Maich’s headline (followed by gambling and terrorism, despite his article never really explaining what “terrorism” he suspects is occurring outside of bomb information that is already available anonymously from your local library). But the problem with porn has been decreasing day after day, not increasing. According to Maich,
“A 1998 study by Forrester Research pegged the market for online porn at close to US$1 billion annually. How much it has grown since then is the subject of bitter disagreement, but one company, Internet Filter Review, reported that between 1998 and 2003 the number of pornographic pages on the World Wide Web rose from 14 million to 260 million.”
However, a recent study done by Microsoft found that pornography takes up only about one percent of the content on the Internet. Porn crusaders would have you believe the images are everywhere, but this is clearly not the case. I can personally attest that while years ago “accidentally” finding pornography or receiving some in junk e-mails did have some basis in truth, this is now such a rare case it barely needs mentioning.
Laws have been passed limiting the ways pornography can be displayed, keeping it out of the eyes of children. More sites are password or credit card protected. And recent laws requiring all “models” to have signed forms stating they are 18 has filtered out much of the more amateur and less professional flotsam.
Misinformation on the Internet
Maich is afraid the Internet is something of a Misinformation Superhighway. He says, “The answers to the great questions of our world may be out there somewhere, but finding them will require you to first wade through an ocean of misinformation, trivia and sludge.” I know nothing of the trivia or sludge, but the misinformation he speaks of is a hazard that is becoming less and less abundant and the Internet is responsible for this self-cleaning. Can he claim that outdated science books remove themselves from the shelves or that newspapers and magazine are any more reliable than the new digital media?
Many people point to Wikipedia as a source of misinformation. With anyone allowed to submit a few words or paragraphs, surely the quality of the articles must be very poor, right? Or as Maich puts it, “Wikipedia, of course, is based upon the notion that hundreds of thousands of anonymous contributors, all acting as freelance fact checkers, can produce a reliable reference document.” Actually, critics are finding exactly the opposite of the assumed inaccuracies.
Yes, errors exist (such as the notorious claim that USA Today editorial director John Seigenthaler is or was a suspect in the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations). But Wikipedia has developed locks to prevent vandalism on controversial subjects, warnings are posted on articles that may have a skewed viewpoint (which is more than you’ll get from the news) and the articles are more and more often full of dozens of citations from legitimate sources so the claims can be easily checked and taken as reliable.
The conclusion made by the scholarly science journal Nature that Wikipedia entries are “not markedly less accurate” than the articles of the Encyclopaedia Britannica may not be completely true. But if not, the directors of the site are working tirelessly to make that dream a reality.
Google and Medical Science
At least one group of people thinks the Internet offers valuable information: medical doctors. Some doctors are consulting Google to find the source and treatment of rare illnesses they are not familiar with and would take much too long to search old journals for. Maich reports that “[s]tudies by the American Medical Association and World Health Organization have found that the quality of medical information on the Web ranges from spotty to dismal,” but I’d like a second opinion.
Doctors Hangwi Tang and Jennifer Hwee Kwoon Ng, both professionals from Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, conducted a test to see how often Google could diagnose illnesses correctly compared to a leading medical journal (the New England Journal of Medicine). They found Google was correct 58% of the time. And while this doesn’t seem very impressive (58% would be a failing grade in medical school), one must keep in mind that the effectiveness of Google takes only seconds — where searching through decades of medical journals could take ages.
Says Tang, “[I]f one uses the Web critically, there is no harm in seeing if a rare combination of symptoms have been reported before.” He also points out the 58% can be refined by a trained physician rather than a layman through the use of proper technical terminology and the ability to quickly spot obvious errors the average person would not be aware of.
The Dot-com Bust
In hindsight, there is no difficulty in saying the Internet boom of the late 1990s was a let down or a failure in the eyes of some. Following Jack Welch’s example and comparing the Internet to a Viagra high, Maich says, “the Internet produced in business a rush of extreme excitement, which temporarily interfered with normal brain function. It was manifested in one of the most impressive market climbs in modern history between 1998 and mid-2000 — a euphoric ride, followed by an equally astonishing collapse.”
But why be so quick to dismiss the Internet as a whole because some poor business decisions were made by investers? The problem lies not only in the Internet, but in those who were pushing a product the public was not ready for (for a variety of reasons, least of which being the lack of high-speed connections in many areas). Just a few years later, and look at the digital business world in a society that has the computer infrastructure to support it. Google? Yahoo? eBay? Amazon? Like any other business, they run the risk of collapse, but I believe most analysts would agree the online businesses of today are much stronger than their counterparts a decade ago.
Hype in the 1990s might have been pushed by false statistics from WorldCom and other hopeful people, and this is unfortunate. But the mistakes of the past do not negate the successes of the present: we are in a profitable digital world, and peopel are coming onboard without false security to reassure them.
A Second Bust?
Maich calls to our attention the purchase of YouTube by Google (which he sums up as a site for kids to sing karaoke on) and NewsCorp’s grabbing up of MySpace. I actually share his concerns about these new businesses being too fresh to guarantee long-term success, and also about their seeming ability to lose money.
But both Google and NewsCorp are monumental companies, and unlike the private investors of the 1990s, these guys can afford the risk. NewsCorp has already found ways to turn a profit (or at least make it seem like they have). Much of the cost can be covered by ad banners, and as NewsCorp is the owner of Fox, Fox products (television and movies, mostly) are heavily featured, directing people to look into their other holdings. MySpace also holds the rights to use anything posted on their site, which if actually followed would be an incredible advantage for NewsCorp. Least of all, they have a large demographic database at their disposal — exactly the information a media company strives to purchase.
What Google seeks to do with YouTube to earn back the more than one billion dollars it spent on the deal is a mystery for now. But CEO Eric Schmidt says this is not a repeat of the 1990s. “If there is a new bubble I don’t think a single acquisition is a talisman of that. Before you call it a bubble why don’t you look for a trend?” Whether he proves to be right or not is as of yet undetermined.
The Internet’s Threat to Music
The story of Napster and Kazaa is now a familiar one: why would kids purchase music legally when they can get the same thing for free? But the problem is much more complex than any of the critics let on.
Will people steal if the ability is there? Of course. Just as children will steal entire buckets of candy if you leave them on your porch for Halloween, so will older people use the technology available to get what they want. And this is hardly new. People have bootlegged cassettes for a long time, and nobody really believes VCRs exist to watch home movies of your kids. As technology improves, so will pirating. While this does nothing to excuse the illegal acts, it’s a reality and one that should be faced more comprehensively than the lawsuits that are quick to get mailed these days.
Maich himself even acknowledges solutions are emerging (though he refuses to admit this is what he’s saying). He informs us, “Last Christmas , the burgeoning online music industry sold $20 million in digital music over the Web in a single week, and the popularity of such services continues to grow.” If legal music sales are growing, then online sales must be part of the solution.
Laws can be passed to outlaw such pirating services as BitTorrent. But at the same time, look where the sales disappeared: is it possible that people buy fewer albums because the albums themselves are not as good as they used to be, or the market is flooded, or perhaps twenty dollars at Camelot (or FYE) is just too much? Or perhaps the problem is something else entirely: we have reached an era where musicians no longer need to rely on record labels or the RIAA. If musicians get their income from ticket sales and radio play, the Internet piracy could actually be helping them.
Again we turn to MySpace, which has an almost limitless catalogue of music available to listen to legally. Friends are passing tracks around for bands that would otherwise go unheard. Smaller bands like Minus the Bear or Drums and Tuba are now known far and wide because of copying — not a record label. And what of the band Wilco? Frontman Jeff Tweedy has said, “The internet is like radio for us.” And rightfully so. After being dropped by Reprise Records in 2001, Wilco released its next album for free on the Internet. When the hard copy was later released, the band peaked higher on the Billboard charts than ever before. And the album after that debuted at #8.
“To suggest the arts are ultimately better off thanks to Internet file sharing is to suggest that entertainers would’ve been better off to hand out CDs for free and live on donations from fans,” says Maich. Clearly, he does not understand that compact discs simply never offered artists compensation in the first place, and that concerts (which are paid by “donations” from those who buy tickets) have always been the key. The business model has changed for the record companies, not the artists. Tweedy would be the first to say that giving an album away for free did more for his album and ticket sales than a record label was able to do in the modern era.
(As a side note, Maich is also concerned about pirating books. This pirating would be “a potentially crippling blow to publishers whose businesses depend upon selling books to thousands of libraries around the world.” However, until people prefer staring at a screen for hours on end rather than at a book they can take to the beach, or when it actually becomes more cost effective to self-print than to buy a book, I wouldn’t really bother losing much sleep over this.)
A Quick Note on Blogs
Maich laments that over 12 million blogs are now online, and the vast majority are worthless. Either people have nothing important to say, they express a biased political view or they are simply unoriginal. I agree completely.
But why does Maich put so much pressure on the bloggers to be important? When I read a friend’s blog on LiveJournal, I am looking to find how they spent their weekend. I hardly expect to find the meaning of life or even some insightful reporting on the issues. My friend wouldn’t expect me to be looking for that. And everyone else is not going to bother reading the blog at all.
But this was never the point. While some blogs do attempt to subvert the mainstream media (MSM) — particularly political blogs — they hardly consider themselves authorities on anything, and the readers wouldn’t expect this, either. Blogs are merely a supplement — not a replacement — for the mainstream news. I would hardly agree with the idea that “the Net has fed the cynical perception that every form of traditional authority is based on lies and corruption”, though at the same time to think the opposite — that those in authority are not liars or corrupt — would be incredibly naive.
(Side note: Maich says that internet news is the reason newspaper staff has been getting thinner. This may well be true. But what about the fast-paced Americans who are turning to television rather than newsprint? And what about media giants like Gannett who reprint the same news in newspapers around the country, making local reporters obsolete?)
Quick Notes on Plagiarism and Spam
Both plagiarism and spam are serious online problems. But both have very easy solutions.
For each paper that is stolen online, that same paper can be very easily checked online for plagiarism. A decade ago, an essay stolen from a book or elsewhere would be almost certainly untraceable. Some services specifically target plagiarism. I would not be surprised if the Internet has decreased rather than increased the rates of copying.
Spam, meanwhile, is a new twist of an old trick. For years we have gotten phone calls we did not want or mail with offers we had no interest in (especially credit cards). Now we get the same thing, only in the form of Nigerian diplomats or penis enlargement pills. The difference: while we still receive the calls and mailings, internet spam is becoming increasingly illegal in a variety of states. Soon, we might receive less junk online than through our front door.
Critics will say that “[f]or everything the Web has simplified, accelerated and proliferated, there is at least as much that it has destroyed”. But why not look at it in the reverse: for every thing of the past, a faster and smoother method has arisen. When the telephone was invented, did the world end because Pony Express riders lost their job? No; things ended up working out for the best.
The Internet has flaws, there’s no doubt of that. But what doesn’t? I wouldn’t stop driving if someone pointed out to me that an automobile breaks down all the time or that it pollutes or that gasoline is more expensive than riding a bicycle. I’d push for a better built car with cleaner fuel emissions and find ways to conserve gasoline while pushing for alternate fuel sources (which will — oh no!! — make oil companies obsolete).
Steve Maich can sit in his comfortable office chair and throw stones at the Internet, but I’d much rather work to make it the kind of place he wishes it was.
Auchard, Eric. “Google closes YouTube deal” Reuters. http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=technologyNews&storyid=2006-11-14T094137Z_01_WEN9731_RTRUKOC_0_US-GOOGLE.xml&src=rss November 14, 2006.
Brink, Susan. “Point, click and diagnose?” Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-google20nov20,1,128957.story?coll=la-headlines-health November 20, 2006.
Jardin, Xeni. “Music is Not a Loaf of Bread” Wired News. http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65688,00.html November 15, 2004.
Maich, Steve. “Pornography, gambling, lies, theft and terrorism: The Internet sucks.” http://www.macleans.ca/topstories/life/article.jsp?content=20061030_135406_135406 October 30, 2006.