Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Edge Annual Question: How Is The Internet Changing the Way You Think?

There is no doubt that the Internet has changed the way people work, communicate, and relate to each other. It has created a new collaborative environment where teams can form ad hoc and work seamlessly in a manner not possible in pre-internet times. In doing so it has caused an economic paradigm shift from a molecule-based economy to a bit-based one with enormous impact across most industries.

The Internet has also changed the way people relate to each other. Social media have arrived at a time where a great number of people in technologically-advanced societies prefer safer and therefore shallower social relationships. By providing a middleware of make-believe personalities and touch-and-go messaging Facebook, Twitter and the rest are undermining much of the emotional depth of humanness. “Friends” are no longer what friends used to be.

Its impact on the western political system is perhaps less obvious but not least important. Representative democracy is being undermined constantly by the de facto disintegration of political constituencies as well as national borders. The Internet’s effect on newspapers and the media is more prominent and corrosive, but is comes a late second to the radical transformation of citizens allegiances.

All in all, the internet is facilitating modern globalization in unprecedented ways. Historically, various eras of nascent globalization (e.g the Achamenind, Hellenistic and Roman Empires, or the British Empire), lacked the communication technology to evolve into the next level; which explains, partly, historical regressions. This is no more the case. The Internet, thanks to its decentralized architecture and built-in redundancies, hinders regressions. For example,it is now virtually impossible to return to the days of nationalism because the net, and its users, can bypass whatever legal or physical obstacles nationalism may put on their way. This single fact has transformed much of the way we think about our own national identity, by changing traditional narratives of nationhood. Coupled with the current demographic tsunami of millions migrating from the poorest regions of the planet to the richer ones, it accelerates the challenging of many century-old ideas (or “myths” as they tend to be termed nowadays).

Which leaves us with two extreme scenarios for the future - and the most likely possibility that tomorrow will fall somewhere in between. The cyber-optimist would envision a digital noosphere morphing into a collective consciousness; the dawn of a brave new, truly global, civilization. National borders disappear, communities flourish, and so do free markets, liberty and free speech. The luddite-pessimist an era of strife where pre-Internet ways of thinking, nationalist philosophies, entrenched political systems, legacy legislators and post-romantic intellectuals, will desparately try to control the uncontrollable.