Monday, August 29, 2005

The growth of the Internet - because it's been long overdue

The Internet as social technology.
The technocraties built the Internet; then they got seduced by the early cyber activists’ myopic vision of the future wired world. Whilst the growth rate of the Internet is still marveled, I dare to suggest that today the Internet is decades behind where it could’ve been if not for this unholy marriage between the myopic vision of the cyber activists and the techies’ vanity. If other technologies’ development and direction were as slow and misguided as the Internet’s, today we would have steam powered submarines not nuclear reactor powered.

Surprisingly the social discourse today still revolves around the Internet as some sort of remarkable technology which somehow sucked people into a phenomenally boundless communication and community swirl. Many marvel at the extraordinary growth of this technology and its uptake by the global citizenry. The fact is that people are naturally and intrinsically inquisitive creatures who always wanted to do things faster and better or at least differently. Whilst the Internet is a remarkable technological feast, I think it is more remarkable that the WWW with its hyperlinks and GUI browsers in particular, were not invented much earlier. I submit that it is these technologies, once they appeared on the social radar, which infused the Internet as social technology into the societal consciousness. Despite this infusion the Internet is not a divine social elixir as some - especially the early devotees of cyber - would like us to believe. Lisa Palac in 1994 predicted: "The Internet will be to women in the '90s what the vibrator was to women in the '70s. It's going to have that power." Well... that's not what I'm hearing from women. The Internet does many things well; apparently vibration isn't one of them. Although Lisa still managed to fall pregnant, but than again, Lisa's no ordinary woman - she's a self confessed cyber bitch.

What’s even more remarkable is that in the 21st century there are many cyber luminaries who still worship the Internet as if by decree from the Silicon Valley. A decade ago Clifford Stoll forewarned: "Internet hustlers invade our communities with computers ... The key ingredient of their silicon snake oil is a technocratic belief that computers and networks will make a better society. [However] the most important interactions in life happen between people, not between computers… We techies should be more honest about what computers can do and what they cannot do, or else we are setting ourselves up for a big pie in the face."

People have embraced the Internet not because of its technological frivolousness but because as David Phillips put it in his response to the Communities of Play: "There is this animal. It has, over 60,000 years developed a range of very interesting social skills. It liked the Internet because it is a paradigm that suits its social skill set. The Internet became popular with this animal and grew and got better and it grew some more. If we look at the social skills of the animal, we see it and recognise it."

The reality is that there's nothing remarkable about the fast growth of the Internet. It is like the thirsty in the desert, there's nothing remarkable about seeing the thirsty rushing to a water well. Technology is a just side-show; a product of human ingenuity, social interaction, cognition and imagination. Give that "marvelous" technology to any other primate and the real worth of technology on its own will become quite clear.

Those who fail to heed the voices of social commentators with real foresight will be left to languish by the wayside. In a desert even staled water tastes cool and fresh.

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