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A million reasons why the internet is good for you

Funny thing was happening to us on the way to the future. The internet went from being an exotic thing to a boring utility, similar to mains water or electricity – which we had no idea about. So we wound up being completely dependent on a technology that is utterly obsessive. What do you think of me exaggerating dependence? You can ask Estonia one of the most connected countries in the world and was basically shut down for two weeks due to a sustained attack on its network infrastructure. Imagine what it might be like if, one day, you suddenly found yourself in a position where you couldn’t book flights, transfer money from your bank account, check the timetables of buses, send emails or search Google, call your family using Skype or buy the latest music on Apple or books on Amazon, buy or sell items on eBay, watch clips from YouTube or BBC programmes on the iPlayer, visit a 링크 – or do the 1,001 other things that have become like breathing.
The internet has quietly entered our lives, and yet we seem to be remarkably unaware of it. It’s not because we’re in the midst of a lack of information on the internet but rather, we’re awash with the things. The problem is that we don’t know what it all means. We’re in the same state as described by the legendary cyberspace expert, Manuel Castells, as “informed confusion”.

Mainstream media don’t exactly help here, because much, if not all online media coverage is negative. It may be essential to our children’s education however, they admit, it’s riddled with online predators who want children to “groom” to abuse. Google is supposedly “making us dumb” by putting a dent in our focus in the process. It’s also allegedly leading to an epidemic of plagiarism. File sharing is degrading music, online news is taking down newspapers, and Amazon is destroying book stores. The network has been making fun of legal injunctions, and the web is full of lies, distortions and falsehoods. Social networking fuels the growth of vicious “flash mobs” that smuggle innocent columnists, like Jan Moir. And so on.

All of this could cause an observer who isn’t in the loop to ask why the internet is an absolute disaster and a disaster, why do 27% of the world’s population (or approximately 1.8 billion users) utilize it with joy every day, while billions are desperate to get internet access?

What can we do to get a more balanced view of the net ? What are you actually required to know to understand the internet phenomenon? After having thought about this for a while and a bit, I’m able to say that all you need is an enumeration of small ideasthat, taken together, can dramatically decrease the confusion of which Castells’s writings are so well-written.

How many thoughts? In 1956, psychology professor George Miller published a famous paper in the journal Psychological Review. The title of the paper was “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Limits on the Capacity of Processing Information” and in it, Miller set out to summarise some earlier experiments which attempted to measure the limitations of short-term memory in people. In each of the cases, he noted that the appropriate “channel capacity” was between five and nine possibilities. Miller did not draw any firm conclusion from this however, and was content by merely conjecturing that “the repeated sevens could be a sign of something deep and profound , or be just coincidences”. The most likely conclusion, he thought, was it.

However, Miller did not realize the fervor of the popular culture for anything that had the word “magical” in the title. Instead of being regarded as an aggregator of research findings, Miller found himself identified as a kind of Sage — a sage who was a discovery of a fundamental truth concerning human beings. “My issue,” he wrote, “is that I’ve been subject to a shaming by an number. Since 2007, this number has followed me around, has gotten into my most private records and has been a constant threat in the most widely read journal… There truly is something peculiar about this number or maybe I suffer from delusions of being targeted for a snare.”

In reality the fundamental idea that Miller formulated in his 1956 paper seems to have been able to stand the tests of time. The concept is that our short-term memory only holds between five and 9 “chunks” of information at any time (here a chunk is defined as a “meaningful chunk”). When trying to choose how many of the big notions about the internet could be of interest to most users it was sensible to go with a total of nine. And here they are.

The most interesting thing about living through a revolution is that it’s difficult to know what’s happening. Imagine what it been like to be a resident within St Petersburg in 1917, just before Lenin or the Bolsheviks eventually took over power. It’s obvious that significant things are happening; there are all kinds of theories and speculations yet no one can predict what the outcome will be. Only through retrospective analysis can we have a clear idea of what actually transpired. However, the clarity the benefit of hindsight brings is often misleading, because it understates the extent to which things were confusing to people at the time.

It’s happening right in the present. We’re experiencing a massive transformation of our communications environment. Since we don’t enjoy the advantage of hindsight, we don’t really know where it’s taking us. The thing we’ve learned through the history of technology in communications is the tendency of people to underestimate the impact of these technology advancements as well as underestimating their long-term impact.

It’s all in our daily lives when aspiring savants writers, commentators, and visionaries tout their personal theories about what internet technology could mean for business, publishing education, retailing, politics and the future of civilization as we recognize it. The majority of these interpretations are transformed into catchy slogans such as memes, aphorisms, or memes: Information “wants for free” as well as the “long trail” represents the future for retail “Facebook recently took over its control of internet”, and so on. These types of phrases are in reality just short-term exaggerations of the experience of yesterday or today. They offer no insight into how the revolution we’re living through is heading. The question is: can we do any better — without falling into the trap of pretending that we are omniscient?

Here’s a radical idea that is: why not try to determine what can be learned from the past? Since mankind has experienced the beginning of a change in the world of communications, brought about through technological advances in printing using movable type. The technology revolutionized the world — indeed it altered the cultural surroundings in which many of people grew up. The best part about it, from the point of view of this essay is that we are able to examine it through the prism of the hindsight. We know what happened.

A thought experiment

So let’s conduct what the Germans refer to as a “Thinkexperiment”- a thought experiment. Imagine that the net represents the same kind of change in our communications environment to those created by printing. What would we learn from this experiment?

The first printed bibles emerged in 1455, from the press developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz. Now imagine that 1472 is the year which is 17 years following 1455. Imagine, in addition, being the equivalent of the Mori pollster, standing on the bridge of Mainz with an instrument in your hands and asking pedestrians questions. Here’s question four: On a scale of 1-to-5, with one means “Not at any time likely” and five indicates “Very likely”, how likely do you think Herr Gutenberg’s invention will:

(a) Infringe on any authority or legitimacy of Catholic church?

(b) Power the Reformation?

(c) Allow the rise of modern science?

(d) Create completely new professions and social classes?

(e) Rethink our notions about “childhood” as an enshrined early period in a person’s life?

On a scale of the one-to-5 scale! You have only to ask questions to understand the absurdity of the notion. Printing did indeed have all these effects however, it is impossible that anyone during 1472 in Mainz (or any other place in the world, for the matter) could have known how significant its impact would be.

I’m writing this in the year 2010 it’s been 17 years since the internet was made mainstream. If I’m correct in my assessment of the internet causing the way we communicate in an environment comparable to that wrought by Gutenberg in the past, then it’s insane to me (or anyone else) to claim to know what its long-term impact will be. The truth is that there is no way to know.

The trouble is, though, that everybody affected by the net wants to know the answer immediately. Newspaper journalists as well as their employer want to know what’s about to change their business. The music industry as well as publishers, television networks radio stations, government agencies, travel agents university, telcos and universities airlines, libraries and lots of other. The unfortunate reality is that they’ll all have to become patient. And for certain before we’ve got the answers to their questions, it will be already too late.

The most popular — and still surprisingly popular — myth has been that computers and the web are the same thing. They’re not. The best way to grasp this is to use the analogy of a railway. Imagine the internet as a track and signalling, the infrastructure on which everything runs. In a rail network, different kinds of traffic depend on the infrastructureexpress trains that are high-speed, slow stopping trains, freight trains, commuter trains and (sometimes) special maintenance and repair trains.

Internet-based websites are just one of the numerous kinds of traffic that are running on its virtual tracks. Other kinds of traffic include music files being exchanged via peer-to-peer networks, or via the iTunes store movies that are transferred through BitTorrent software updates; email; instant messaging; phone conversations through Skype and other VoIP (internet phone) services; streaming video and audio; and other stuff far too obscure to discuss.

And (here’s the crucial part) there will definitely be other kinds of traffic, things we’ve never dreamed of, yet, on the internet in ten years’ time.

So the thing to remember is this: the web is huge and very important, but it’s just one of many things that operate on the internet. The net is much bigger and much more significant than anything else that uses it.

If you can recognize this basic distinction, you’ll be halfway to wisdom.

One of the things that most puzzles (and is a source of concern for) people about the net is its potential for disruption. At one point, you’ve got a profitable, stable business that includes, say, being the CEO of a music label; then the next your industry is struggling for survival, and you’re paying a king’s ransom to intellectual property lawyers in a futile struggle to stop the flow. Perhaps you’re a newspaper company and wondering why a steady revenue stream from classified ads might suddenly be gone or a librarian at a university wondering why students use only Google now. How does this happen? And how can it happen in such a short time?

The answer lies in the structure of the network. When it was created in the 70s, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, the lead designers, faced two daunting tasks: how to design an integrated system that could seamlessly connect numerous networks, and also how to create a network that is able to meet the needs of the future. The answer they came up with was breathtakingly simple. The answer was founded on two axioms. First, there should be no central control or ownership and no single entity that could determine who can join the network or what it could be employed for. Secondly, the network should not be optimised for any particular purpose. It was the reason for the creation of a “simple” networking system which did just one thing: accept data packets from one end and try its best to deliver them to their destinations. The network was neutral regarding the content of these packets. They could contain fragments of email, porn videos calls, photos, phone conversations… This network didn’t care and would treat all equally.

By implementing these two protocols, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn designed what was basically an all-encompassing machine that would spring unexpected events. The idea behind their invention was that when you had some idea which could easily be implemented with data packets the internet would do it for youwith no requirements. It didn’t require you to get anyone’s permission.

The explosion of creativity that has resulted in innovative applications that the world has witnessed since the advent of the internet in the early 1980s might have taken a lot of industries and institutions off guard, but it was predictable in the context of the technology. There are many clever programmers out there and the internet has gave them a great launch pad for springing surprises. What kinds of surprises? Well, the internet itself. It was mostly the work by one individual – Tim Berners-Lee who in the year 1991, published the code on an internet server, without having to obtain permission from anyone.

Ten years after Berners-Lee started work, a disgruntled, music-loving teenager called Shawn Fanning spent six months creating software for sharing music files. He also in 1999, he threw his own little surprise on a server on the internet. The program was dubbed Napster and it acquired over 60 million customers before music companies managed to stop it. By that point, the file-sharing bottle was empty in the bottle.

While this was happening at the same time, other equally intelligent programmers were developing more sinister surprisesin the form of a plague of viruses, spam or worms. There are also others security “exploits” which they have successfully unleashed over an uninvolved network that doesn’t pay attention to what’s inside the data you send. The risk of this “malware” explosion are alarming. For example, mysterious groups have gathered “botnets” (made consisting of millions of secretly compromised, computer networks) which could be used to carry out massive co-ordinated attacks that could bring down the network infrastructure of entire industries, or perhaps even entire nations. So far in the past, with the exception of Estonia in 2007, we haven’t yet seen an attack like this, but the worry is that it’ll happen and will be the net’s own version of 9/11.

The Internet’s disruption is a result of its technical DNA. According to the terms of programmers it’s a feature not a flaw – that is, it’s an intentional choice that is not a mistake. It’s hard to imagine how we can deactivate the ability of the network to generate unpleasant surprises , without also removing other types of creativity it fosters.

As a framework for analysis, economics may be a mess when dealing with the internet. Because while economics is the study of the distribution of limited resources, the online world is distinguished by the abundance. In the same way, ecology (the study of natural systems) specialises in abundance, and it is a good idea to study what’s going on in the media from the perspective as an ecologist.

Since the web became mainstream in 1993 and the internet has become a major part of our media “ecosystem” which you may like, has become immeasurably more complicated. The traditional, industrialised mass media ecosystem was characterized by declining growth rates and a small number of profitable, powerful, slow-moving publishers and broadcasters masses of viewers comprised mostly of passive consumers of centrally produced media; only a handful of communication channels and a slow rate of changes. The new system is expanding quickly: it includes thousands of publishers; billions of active, internet-savvy, highly informed readers, viewers and listeners; a myriad of communications channels, as well as a dizzying rate of change.

For an ecologist, this appears like an ecosystem with a diversity that has increased dramatically. It’s as if the world where large animals like dinosaurs (think Time Warner, Encyclopaedia Britannica) had trudged through the land slowly exchanging information in large, discrete pieces, but was changing into an ecosystem where millions of smaller species consume transform, aggregate, or break down and exchange information goods in much smaller pieces – and where massive new life-forms (think Google, Facebook) are appearing. The natural environment is undergoing a transformation. increased biodiversity is closely related to greater productivity of the whole system – that is, the amount of energy and material inputs are transformed into increased growth. It is possible that this phenomenon is also taking place in the realm of information? And if it is then who will be the beneficiary in the long term?

Although you may not agree with the metaphor of the ecological in any way, it’s not a doubt that our current information system is more complex in terms of numbers of participants and the volume of the interactions among them as well as the pace of change – than any other environment that has existed before. This complexity isn’t just an anomaly or something that can be ignored It’s the current reality, and one that we have to address. This is a challenge, for several reasons. The first is that the behavior of complex systems is often difficult to comprehend and more difficult to predict. And, more importantly our mindsets collectively in the government and in industry aren’t adequate for handling complex systems. In the past, organizations have attempted to address the issue through reducing complexity by buying competitors, locking in customers by introducing standardised products and services, etc. These approaches are unlikely to be effective in the new world, where innovation, ability to adapt, agility, and a willingness to test (and fail) will provide better methods for dealing with what the networked environment is likely to throw at you.
6 The Network is NOW THE COMPUTER

For babies, the computer was a separate PC with Microsoft software. Then, they were connected, initially at a local level (via the office network) and then global (via the internet). As broadband connections to the internet became more commonplace, something atypical occurred: if you had sufficient speed for connecting to the internet, you became less concerned about the exact location of either your stored data or the device which was performing computation duties for you. This made the task easier to perform. At first, the businesses (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft) which provided search began to offer “webmail” – email provided by programs that didn’t run in your PC, but through servers that were part of an internet “cloud”. Then, Google offered word-processing as well as spreadsheets, slide-making, and other “office”-type services over the network. And so on.

There was a change from a time where computers were the computer that was a computer, to one in which networks are effectively the computer. It has led to the rise of “cloud computing” which is a method of computing that uses simple gadgets (mobile phones, laptops, phones with low-power or tablets) to access computing services provided by powerful servers located on the net. This switch to computing as a utility than a service you offer with your own equipment is a huge change for security, privacy as well as economic development. the public’s perceptions are far behind the speed of change. What is the fate of your family’s photos collection if they’re stored in the cloud and your password is taken to your grave? What about your documents and emails that are saved in cloud, but on a different server? Or your “reputation” on eBay? All over the place the shift to cloud computing has significant implications, because it makes us increasingly dependent on the net. And yet we’re sleepwalking into this exciting new world.

Once upon a time, the web was only a publication medium where editors (professional as well as amateur) uploaded passive web pages to servers. For many in the media business this is still the mental image of the web. However, the web has gone through at least three distinct phases of development – from the original web 1.0 to the web 2.0 consisting of “small pieces that are loosely joined” (social networking as well as mashups, webmail and many more) and is now moving towards a web 3.0 – the global platform built on Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of a semantic web in which web pages will include enough information about their content to allow software to make educated judgments regarding their importance and purpose. If we want to understand the web as it is and not as it was in the past in the past, we must develop more realistic mental models of it. First of all, we need to realize that it’s no anymore just a medium for publishing.

Many years ago, the cultural critic Neil Postman, one of the 20th century’s most perceptive critics of technology was predicting that the wisdom of two authors would like the bookends of a pair, define our future. Aldous Huxley was of the opinion that we’d be destroyed by the things we cherish, whereas George Orwell thought we would be destroyed by things we fear.

Postman was writing long before the internet was a major influence in our society however, I think Postman was right. On the other (Huxleyan) side the internet has been profoundly liberating on our lives, providing infinite opportunities for information, entertainment and pleasure communications, and seemingly unaffected consumption, to the point that it has acquired quasi-addictive power particularly among younger generations. You can gauge the severity of the effect by the increasing levels of anxiety among teachers, governments and politicians. “Is Google making us stupid?” is the title to one of the top-cited articles in Atlantic magazine in the year 2008. It has been written by Nicholas Carr, a prominent writer and blogger. He addressed the issue of whether the constant access to information on networks (not just Google) has turned us into a frenzied, shallow thinkers with lower attention time spans. (According to Nielsen an industry research firm, the average time spent viewing a web page is 56 seconds.) Others worry that the constant use of internet could be altering the brain’s wiring.

In the reverse (Orwellian) hand the internet is the closest thing to a complete surveillance system the world has ever experienced. Everything you do on the internet is recorded. Every email you send, each website you visit, every file you download, every search you conduct is recorded and filed somewhere, be it at the web servers belonging to your internet service provider, or in the cloud services you access. As a tool to an absolute government that is interested in the behaviour, social activities and the thought process of its subjects, the internet is just about perfect.

In the analog world the copying process was slow as well as it was destructive (ie the copies were more and more deteriorating than the original). In the digital world, copying is effortless and perfect. Actually, copying is to computers as breathing is to living organisms in the sense that every computational operation involves it. When you visit a web page, for example, a copy of the page is loaded into the video memory of your computer (or smartphone, or iPad) before the device can display it on its screen. So you can’t even look at something on the web without (unknowingly) making a copy of it.

The current IP regime was created in a time when copying was difficult and unreliable, it’s no to be expected that it is now out of sync with our connected world. To make matters worse (or better depending on your viewpoint) the digital age has given internet users software tools which make it trivially easy to edit, copy and publish any content that is accessible in digital format that’s a lot of things, nowadays. As a result, millions of people have become “publishers” as the work they create can be published worldwide on platforms such as Blogger, Flickr and YouTube. In other words, everywhere you look there are things that violate copyrights in one way or some other way.

This is a disagreeable but fact that is evident as the fact that young people tend to drink excessive alcohol. The only way to stop copying is to shut down the web. Intellectual property isn’t a problem (or alcohol), per se, but our copyright laws are now so out of date with reality that they’re getting a bad rap. They need to be overhauled urgently to be relevant to digital circumstances. The issue is that none of our legislators know this, so it won’t happen any time soon.

It’s a bit absurd to believe that these nine ideas encapsulate all that is there to be learned about the internet. However, they offer a framework for seeing what’s happening “in the round” as it were, and might even serve as an antidote for the frenzied extrapolation that frequently is used to provide commentary on changes within cyberspace. The unfortunate reality is that if there’s any “truth” regarding web-based technology, it’s rather straightforward: to virtually any major concern about its long-term impact, the only answer that is rational is the one famously offered by Mao Zedong’s foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution: “It’s too late to make a definitive statement.” It’s.