Sun, Feb 27, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Let’s learn how to turn the Internet off

Twitter can help bring down Middle Eastern dictators — but being forever online disrupts our lives for the worse

By Jonathan Freedland  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

Who among the first evangelists of the Internet foresaw this? When they gushingly described the still emerging technology as “transformational,” it was surely the media or information, rather than political, landscapes they had in mind. And yet now it is the hard ground of the Middle East, not just our reading habits or entertainment options, that is changing before our eyes — thanks, at least in part, to the Internet.

Take the Tunisia uprising that started it all. Those close to it say a crucial factor was not so much the WikiLeaks revelations of presidential corruption, but Facebook. It was on Facebook that the now legendary Boazizi video — showing a vegetable seller burning himself to death — was posted, and on Facebook that subsequent demonstrations were organized. Who knows, if the people of Tunis one day build a Freedom Square, perhaps they’ll make room for a statue of Mark Zuckerberg. If that sounds fanciful, note the Egyptian newborns named simply “Facebook.” (Not that we should get carried away with the notion of Internet as liberator: Dictators have found it useful, too.)

However, what about the rest of us, those unlikely ever to go online to organize an insurrection? What has been the transformative effect on us? Or to borrow the title of the latest of many books chewing on this question, how is the Internet changing the way you think?

Given the subject, I thought it wise to engage in a little light crowd-sourcing, floating that question on Twitter. As if to vindicate the “wisdom of crowds” thesis often pressed by Internet cheerleaders, the range of responses mirrored precisely the arguments raised in the expert essays collected by editor John Brockman in a new book.

There are the idealists, grateful for a tool that has enabled them to think globally. They are now plugged into a range of sources, access to which would once have required effort, expense and long delays. It’s not just faraway information that is within reach, but faraway people — activists are able to connect with like-minded allies on the other side of the world.

As BBC TV’s Newsnight’s Paul Mason noted recently: “During the early 20th century, people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.”

It’s this possibility of cross-border collaboration that has the Internet gurus excited, as they marvel at open-source efforts such as the Linux computer operating system, with knowledge traded freely across the globe. Richard Dawkins even imagines a future when such cooperation is so immediate, so reflexive, that our combined intelligence comes to resemble a single nervous system.

“A human society would effectively become one individual,” he writes.

No less hopeful are the egalitarians who believe the Internet, and social media in particular, have flattened the old hierarchies that put purveyors of information at the top of the pyramid and consumers down below.

“I think that social -boundaries have become more porous,” one tweeter said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be able to have this informal chat with you.”

The end of deference is a theme, with several suggesting that where once they had to believe what they were told, they can now check for themselves.

However, in my unscientific survey, the Pollyannas were outnumbered by the Cassandras, even among people whose Twitter habit might suggest Internet zeal. There were laments for what more than one essayist in the anthology calls the “outsourcing of the mind.”

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