I have been using the internet for a long time. I cannot remember the year I started, but I do remember looking forward to buying a 56K modem. In fact, I still have several modems in a box in the garage, along with my Mac512K and Mac30.
I paid $5.00 a year for internet access back then. Graphics were optional but I opted for a text-only feed. At that time the attraction of the internet was based on accessing written material. Graphics slowed the connection to a crawl, with little benefit. Internet users wanted information, usually the kind that was found in libraries and academic studies. The internet was not a source for news or entertainment. It was like a big library. The only interactions you had with others was through static bulletin boards.
Over time the internet suffered the intrusion of the interests of business. A trade-off occurred. We surrendered our privacy in exchange for content that is most often innane. The internet is the perfection of the “boob tube” – a mindless source of intellectual stimulation. What is most telling, is how our culture – cultures throughout the world – have been changed by the emergence of all of the technologies related to the expansion of the internet.
The world was not prepared for that change. It is the Copernican Syndrome. In 1990, the world was flat. Since then, worldviews have been shattered and replaced with new versions of the truth.
There will come a day when no living person has first-hand knowledge of what life was like without the internet. Among those people will be those who attempt to write a historical account of what occurred during the infancy of the internet. You and I know about that. They won’t.
We might agree that the most significant post-internet social change was our inability to manage the avalanche of information that was made available to us. New information that requires change is upsetting to people. The generation that grew up in the internet age isn’t affected by the rapid-fire exposure to new information the same way. For them, this is the only reality they know. For pre-internet people, everything that has changed is being compared to a reality that is becoming more and more obselete.
I am not suggesting that we go back to a flat-world reality. We can’t go back anyway; there is no reason to entertain the notion. I am suggesting that the chaos in the world will settle down after the flow of information on the internet is better managed, and as people learn how to process that information. That will happen. It is happening now. The patterns of the internet’s development, and our responses, are a matter of public record. The patterns resemble the path from anarchy to civilization. In the beginning, the internet was largely impersonal – a lonely field of information. There were no social rules, you just searched for information that was held by large institutions. When the internet became social – crossroads were created. That is also what happened in civilzation’s early development. Tribes formed and then established trade routes.
When trade routes crossed, people of different tribes adapted to a more diverse social setting. Conflicts arose, but the business interests of the traders prevailed and social institutions emerged which promoted and protected the interests of the people and their businesses. The crossroads of trading became a town that was distinctly different than any of the tribes which supplied the goods to be traded.
Today we are in the phase of development where civility is struggling for dominance. As technology has evolved, so have the rules of good conduct. When our reality is altered, and chaos prevails, our desire for a managed and civil existence tries to bring order to all of the competing interests. Business has the means to enact and enforce those changes, but individuals also create change through creative input, new business ventures, and social protests. Nothing has changed. The internet mirrors life. It is just another crossroads of merging trade routes: a new city where the diversity promises opportunity, but also creates challenges to social order.
The day will come when the chaos is managed. A new era of innocence will emerge. Just as America was once an unexplored expanse of land, the internet is an undeveloped territory. Yesterday’s pioneers are completely unknown to us, outside the myths that tell of their lives. Such will be our fate too. We have a generation of young adults who have never lived without the internet. In 100 years, only a few people will know of people who knew people who lived without the internet. Once they pass, no one will know anyone who ever knew anyone who lived without the internet. When that happens; when no one knows anyone who ever knew us, we will be regarded as the pioneers of the internet.
No one will know the struggles we endured, the cause for our protests, the reasons for our rules, or the suffering that occurred as we tamed a wild frontier. Facebook will become as obscure as the invention of the cotton mill. It will be regarded as something that was needed, but it was too primitive to survive. Something similar to Twitter will survive, but no one will regard it as similar because they won’t remember that Twitter ever existed. Facebook and Twitter will seem ancient, archaic. People will have a hard time understanding why they were ever popular, just as we wonder why people would be happy to use a horse and buggy to ride to church on Sunday.
It’s an exciting time to be alive, but the age we live in is tomorrow’s age of antiquity. We are as obsolete now as we will be then. The differences between now and then rely entirely on our own perceptions of the emerging reality. The internet comes with a switch. You can turn it off. You can turn off your lights too – refuse to use electricity – stop drinking public water, hunt for your food, grow your own vegetables. In the future, even today, opting out of an internet existence will not be an option. Such a move would be akin to choosing a miser’s life in a secluded ravine in the mountains. The internet is new now, but it will not remain so. It will become hardwired into ever aspect of our existence. We are the pioneers. Enjoy what frontier remains while it is here.