I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist…

by Andrew McAfee on July 6, 2010

… but sometimes it feels that way.

A set of prominent, smart, and thoughtful analysts of technology have adopted a fretful or pessimistic tone in recent books about the Net. Jonathan Zittrain‘s The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It came out in April of 2008. In August of that year Andrew Keen‘s The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values appeared. Its title tells you much about its content.

Jaron Lanier‘s anti-Web 2.0 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, was published this past January. Nick Carr‘s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains came out last month; it was based on an article he wrote for The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

And still to come is Sherry Turkle‘s Alone Together, which examines the Net’s impact on adolescents — how they interact with family and friends, learn to think, and form their identities. I heard Turkle talk about the book a while back; a pretty representative quote from her (from a Frontline interview) is “Do we want children to have social skills, to be able to just look at each other face to face and negotiate and have a conversation and be comfortable in groups?… Well, if so, a little less Net time, s’il vous plait.”

Most of these authors state that there is much that is good and beneficial about the Net. But their books heavily emphasize what’s bad and/or worrying about it. A person who woke up today after a 20-year nap and set about educating herself on the unfamiliar “World Wide Web” by reading these books would probably start panicking, and wondering why it hadn’t yet been shut down. They read like amicus briefs filed in a lawsuit against modern technology.

So as a counter to these books and the cumulative impression they leave, I’m going to do something that’s frowned upon in in many bien-pensant circles: I’m going to cheerlead for technology. Let’s look at where we are at present:

  • In developed economies that are free of totalitarianismm, it is economically feasible and technically trivial for most people to express themselves, as much as they like, in any form or media that can be digitally transmitted – words, music, pictures, video, code, etc.. Whatever they create can be made available, almost instantly and freely, around the world, to everyone else in a similar society.
  • It’s easy for these people to instantly access a huge amount of free information on almost any topic imaginable, and to sort through this information with some level of precision.
  • It’s also easy for them to find old friends and colleagues and meet new ones, connect with these people, and stay in contact with them over time, even as their circumstances change.
  • Huge numbers of the planet’s poorest people have finally ended the information and communication vacuum that has hampered their progress and increased misery. There are over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world today. One of the globalization pundit’s favorite lines used to be that over half of the world’s population had never placed a phone call. Anyone think that’s still the case?
  • The Web’s novel technologies and approaches are changing the world of work, making organizations more multi-voiced and egalitarian.
  • Intense, Schumpeterian competition in the tech sector is yielding unprecedented levels of innovation in devices, applications, and services. And much of this innovation is concerned with making tools that are powerful, yet easy and fun to use.  Technology is now expected to delight us, not frustrate us.

None of this was the case twenty years ago — not even close. And isn’t all of it really good news, on balance? Turkle says that “I see part of my role in this conversation as giving nostalgia a good name.” Well, I see part of my role here as restoring progress’s good name, making it once again something to celebrate rather than disparage.

Carr and Turkle are particularly worried about the bad habits that result from ‘always on, always on you’ technologies. And I see their point; there certainly seem to be more ways for me to distract myself now. But the neuroscientist Steven Pinker got it exactly right in a great New York Times opinion piece: “… distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.”

Pinker courageously outs himself as a techno-enthusiast:

Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

I’m one, too. I’m not a techno-utopian, believing that technology alone will solve all our problems, or that it’s an unalloyed good. But when I see the benefits information technology has brought us over the past twenty years I get deeply appreciative and enthusiastic, and I remain so after I read some books that have come out recently.

A while back, I quoted a prediction from Julian Simon:  “The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.” Here’s a technology-specific variant on it; let’s call it “McAfee’s Elaboration:” Information and communication technologies will, for the foreseeable future, contribute positively to the material, psychological, and cognitive well-being of the great majority of people who use them, regardless of their age or circumstances. I wonder if Zittrain, Keen, Lanier, Carr, and Turkle would agree with this statement?

Do you agree with McAfee’s Elaboration? Am I overinflating the virtues of the current era of technological progress, or being too naive about or dismissive of its discontents? Are the good things not as good as I’m portraying them, or the bad things worse? Or are you, like me and Pinker, a cheerleader for tech? Leave a comment, please, and let us know your thoughts.

  • http://blogstu.wordpress.com stu

    I'm a bit of a moderate on the subject. It bothers me that few people read books anymore. I'm concerned that people will allow technology to replace rather than supplement their activities. That being said, you are right that there is the opportunity to have people and information more interconnected, countering the trend of sprawl that started before the internet. It is amazing to share and connect with friends old and new around the globe. I'd say that your elaboration is a bit overly optimistic; I don't want my children to become too dependent on technology. Maybe I've read too many dystopian books…

  • http://blogstu.wordpress.com stu

    I'm a bit of a moderate on the subject. It bothers me that few people read books anymore. I'm concerned that people will allow technology to replace rather than supplement their activities. That being said, you are right that there is the opportunity to have people and information more interconnected, countering the trend of sprawl that started before the internet. It is amazing to share and connect with friends old and new around the globe. I'd say that your elaboration is a bit overly optimistic; I don't want my children to become too dependent on technology. Maybe I've read too many dystopian books…

  • digiphile

    On balance, I agree with your elaboration given the examples you provide.

    That said, like Stu, I'm thinking a lot about my relationship with reading and technology recently, particularly as mediated by glowing screens. I largely unwired this past week in Maine. I read two books and most of the most recent Atlantic and Economist. On the latter, I found myself looking for links and ways to share. Clearly, I need more offline time! I'm remain curious about the effect of immersion online on my ability to reason, analyze and write creatively. More experimentation needed.

  • digiphile

    On balance, I agree with your elaboration given the examples you provide.

    That said, like Stu, I'm thinking a lot about my relationship with reading and technology recently, particularly as mediated by glowing screens. I largely unwired this past week in Maine. I read two books and most of the most recent Atlantic and Economist. On the latter, I found myself looking for links and ways to share. Clearly, I need more offline time! I'm remain curious about the effect of immersion online on my ability to reason, analyze and write creatively. More experimentation needed.

  • http://twitter.com/marnash Mark Nash

    I am a Net optimist as well. It has changed my life in many ways and I too am a evangelist for technology and agree with “McAfee's Elaboration”. Like all advances they can be used for good or not. ICTs are a great equalizer.

    On a more personal level, as a father of 9, all under 20, I attest that ICTs have made them smarter and more social, not the opposite. Self-discipline, a desire to learn & share and strong values are key ingredients. The technology is an enabler and an accelerant.

    Thoughts?

  • http://twitter.com/marnash Mark Nash

    I am a Net optimist as well. It has changed my life in many ways and I too am a evangelist for technology and agree with “McAfee's Elaboration”. Like all advances they can be used for good or not. ICTs are a great equalizer.

    On a more personal level, as a father of 9, all under 20, I attest that ICTs have made them smarter and more social, not the opposite. Self-discipline, a desire to learn & share and strong values are key ingredients. The technology is an enabler and an accelerant.

    Thoughts?

  • http://twitter.com/angelariddering Angela Riddering

    Yes I'm an Internet optimist as well. Thanks to the net I read a lot more books, because I keep getting interesting reviews (thanks to stuff like Twitter). My social networks are international and that makes me a fan too. Sharing information is fun to do and fun to receive. I think I've broadened my horizons enormously thanks to the net and I would never, never want to go back

  • http://twitter.com/angelariddering Angela Riddering

    Yes I'm an Internet optimist as well. Thanks to the net I read a lot more books, because I keep getting interesting reviews (thanks to stuff like Twitter). My social networks are international and that makes me a fan too. Sharing information is fun to do and fun to receive. I think I've broadened my horizons enormously thanks to the net and I would never, never want to go back

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I don’t think Jonathan Zittrain‘s “The Future of the Internet” belongs in that group. It’s a not a book of technological criticism _per se_, so much as some very, very, mild analysis about externalities and incentives in development. It only seems “fretful or pessimistic” when it’s viewed against a background of pure fantasy technology promotion. It’s certainly not “amicus briefs filed in a lawsuit against modern technology.” – lawsuit against Kool-Aid pushing evangelists, maybe.

  • Cine Cynic

    As clichéd as this sounds, Internet like most inventions of mankind is neither good or bad. It can be used as well as abused.

    Coming to the dropping levels of book reading, non-fiction has always been immensely more popular than fiction, and the average man always reads more articles than full books. This is true even today. It's just that by making publishing easier than ever before, blog posts and articles of different lengths (very small to very long) are possible while it was not economically viable to publish tiny snippets in the past. And the concept of hypertext (beautiful or distracting) discovering new things to read easier than ever before.

  • http://www.mdesaulles.net/blog Martin De Saulles

    I would generally agree with your argument. I think that giving more people greater access to increasing amounts of information is a good thing. It will take our brains a while to adjust but tools and systems for managing information will get better. My main concern is the danger that people, and I include myself in this, will be less able to focus on reading and thinking for sustained periods of time. Twitter, blogs and other social media are good at alerting us to new sources of information and sharing them with others. However, being able to sit quietly and really concentrate on reading a text and then thinking about it is vital for real knowledge to be developed. Digiphile's experiment in disconnecting from the net and reading analogue media is interesting. I know that when I take a 2 week holiday without accessing the internet and just read through a pile of books my mind feels much more free to think creatively. Of course, part of that might be just being in a nice place away from the office but I'm sure that not having Outlook and Tweetdeck bleeping at me is a big part of it.

  • http://www.mdesaulles.net/blog Martin De Saulles

    I would generally agree with your argument. I think that giving more people greater access to increasing amounts of information is a good thing. It will take our brains a while to adjust but tools and systems for managing information will get better. My main concern is the danger that people, and I include myself in this, will be less able to focus on reading and thinking for sustained periods of time. Twitter, blogs and other social media are good at alerting us to new sources of information and sharing them with others. However, being able to sit quietly and really concentrate on reading a text and then thinking about it is vital for real knowledge to be developed. Digiphile's experiment in disconnecting from the net and reading analogue media is interesting. I know that when I take a 2 week holiday without accessing the internet and just read through a pile of books my mind feels much more free to think creatively. Of course, part of that might be just being in a nice place away from the office but I'm sure that not having Outlook and Tweetdeck bleeping at me is a big part of it.

  • http://www.elimueller.com Eli Mueller

    The benefits of the web clearly outweigh the costs. This makes your article a much appreciated rebuttal to the steadfast critics. Benefits of the internet range from personal satisfaction to global and political liberation (as mentioned). The negative issues surrounding the internet (reading books, concentration, social impacts) are issues that should be addressed with general education and parenting focused on self-responsibility and in a knowledge based world. Let's embrace the vast of amounts of knowledge and communication channels that the internet provides – not criticize it by pointing out individual character flaws. Thanks for the post.

  • http://www.elimueller.com Eli Mueller

    The benefits of the web clearly outweigh the costs. This makes your article a much appreciated rebuttal to the steadfast critics. Benefits of the internet range from personal satisfaction to global and political liberation (as mentioned). The negative issues surrounding the internet (reading books, concentration, social impacts) are issues that should be addressed with general education and parenting focused on self-responsibility and in a knowledge based world. Let's embrace the vast of amounts of knowledge and communication channels that the internet provides – not criticize it by pointing out individual character flaws. Thanks for the post.

  • http://www.infovark.com Dean Thrasher

    The Internet wouldn't have been adopted by so many people so quickly if its benefits weren't substantially greater than its drawbacks. But it's worth considering some of those drawbacks carefully. After all, it's precisely these flaws that will help drive further innovation.

    To take one prominent criticism, perhaps reading on the Internet has become too difficult due to the interruption of advertising, the pull of interactive elements, and maybe even the distraction of hyperlinks themselves.

    All these things can be fixed — and they probably will be — given enough time and thought. (I'm a believer in progress, too.)

  • http://www.infovark.com Dean Thrasher

    The Internet wouldn't have been adopted by so many people so quickly if its benefits weren't substantially greater than its drawbacks. But it's worth considering some of those drawbacks carefully. After all, it's precisely these flaws that will help drive further innovation.

    To take one prominent criticism, perhaps reading on the Internet has become too difficult due to the interruption of advertising, the pull of interactive elements, and maybe even the distraction of hyperlinks themselves.

    All these things can be fixed — and they probably will be — given enough time and thought. (I'm a believer in progress, too.)

  • http://www.HMEA.org Michael Moloney

    As a newly minted 60 year old and former techno ignorati (2 years ago) i say to the naysayers 'get over yourselves”. Technology is getting quicker,cheaper,better with enormous power to shape the future for the good (crowdsourcing ,anyone?). I'm an Exec of a 600 employee non-profit using Web 2.0 with remarkable demonstrated fundraising ROI . We are also rolling out E 2.0 which will make us more efficient and lubricate think tank internal and external conversation leading to NEXT PRACTICE- necessary for survival as the public dollar bubble has burst.
    I'm also a long term “neuro optimist”- brains will adapt to new and more powerful ways of receiving and processing information leading to better decision making. Google's page rank system will seem primitive as unimagined ways of receiving data “in the gestalt” will appear. Call me an evangelist.

  • Chuck Gibson

    As one inclined to observe and reflect on the process of communications, I am struck by the polarity and clarity of the dialectic between the latter day Luddites and Andy and the evangelists of technology. We are into a good debate. It is a little too pure in that sense. I offer a comment and a proposal.

    While some good research may exist on adaptation and fixes that individuals may experience in dealing with the technology – and Andy is a good source for this – we are still dealing with the uncertainty of what the technology will look like and what humans will have to face. Extrapolation of current adaptive (or damaging) personal experience can’t reflect new technological stimuli. Speculation is driven by bias. We need more care and structure to extrapolations and speculation if we are to adapt and fix and exploit technology for the good of individuals and society.

    Doesn’t this invite scenario analysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scenario_analysis)? What would the two dimensions be to create the four possible scenarios? In November 2009 Gartner produced “Four Scenarios for the CIO…” with input from Tom Davenport and Gary Hamel. (Link apparently not available except by registering with Gartner.) I think it is very good. While not on the point of the future impact of technology on individuals, it lays out contrasting options of how technology could impact organizations and their CIO’s. Something like this should be done for individuals.

  • http://twitter.com/rvelez Ray Velez

    I absolutely agree and it's refreshing to see you re-enforcing the amazing innovation and benefits which the web brings us all. While we often lament the fact that we tend to lose focus while online, I feel that's more about learning how to use a new tool. I think it's kind of like trying to work a fire hose that's too powerful to contain. Let's focus on ways to focus. The tool's flexibility is it's greatest power.

  • Dave Szymanski

    Is it a direct result of our digital age that we think only in binary mode? Must everything be reduced to a simplistic choice – good/bad, yes/no, etc? I think very few could argue that increasing information access is a minus rather than a plus. Just as we had to adjust from the horse drawn cart to the automobile, we will evolve to optimize this new tool and we will struggle along the way. Rather than try to pigeon hole this new process of obtaining information, let us examine how we can maximize its potential rather than cowering in fear of the changes it will bring.

  • http://twitter.com/bridgepickup Adam Gerow

    One thing that may overemphasize web pessimism is that writer-experts with bios like the above tend to have the most to lose (prestige, platform…) from what Venkatesh Rao calls the “deeply collaborative nature of [Millenial] cultural DNA”. I feel the same anxiety about technology and instant access to content on Socrates, Gödel, and our next-door neighbors, but I attribute it to the way it highlights what I can’t know . I don't, on the other hand, find myself longing for the depth, character, and wisdom of the 1980's.

  • Michael Moloney

    Good discussion-one more comment. Andy quotes Turkle ” I see part of my role in this conversation as giving nostalgia a good name.”
    A favorite quote of mine: “NOSTALGIA IS NOT A BUSINESS PLAN.”
    While history is serial action/reaction, the buggy whip, typewriters, fax machines and cursive writing are not coming back. Creative destruction is alive and well and that is a good thing.

  • Marian Casey

    Here! Here! I agree with McAfee's Elaboration enthusiastically. Although like you, I feel somewhat alone in my enthusiasm. I recently completed a course with Allan Collins at Northwestern University, co-author with Richard Halverson, of the recent book, “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology”.
    The authors note that “these new technologies enable people of all ages to pursue learning on their own terms'. Although they fear the “the technologies that seem to create more opportunities for equity in learning, may well serve to reinforce the widening economic gap”. In essence, the fear is lack of access to technology for certain groups as evidenced by the lack of other resources in urban school districts.
    With over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world, I believe his fear of equal access can be resolved. Like any major change, there will be pioneers and resistors. It will take more examples, like yours and Pinker's, to slowly build trust in these tools and their benefits.

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  • Davenielsen78

    A couple of his points are nonsense. The ability of access tons of free information is balanced out by the fact that so much of it is useless due to inaccuracy or fears of inaccuracy. For example Wikipedia is great as an idea but doesn’t work in practice. I’ve gone to topics I already know about and have on occasion corrected errors that were there for weeks. Also, the ability to reconnect with old friends you’ve lost touch with is something that could be said against the internet because in most cases you lose touch with those people for a reason. Even if that’s not the case, the ability to reconnect with old friends shouldn’t be listed as one of the reasons why the internet is a good things. Forget about it having a role in making the world a better place! In addition, the world today is definitely not experiencing unprecedented levels of innovation. Compared to the height of the industrial revolution, we’re in a slump.

    Distraction may not be a new phenomenon, but in the past it was a lot harder to procrastinate due to having fewer ways in which to waste time. A monk working on illuminating a Bible didn’t have in iphone to play games on instead. A writer sitting at his typewriter had to get up and go find something to waste time on instead, he couldn’t just with a click of a few buttons start playing internet solitaire or World or Warcraft or something. Few jobs in the old days had people on call because for the longest time you had to be reached by phone or by one of those primitive beepers. Now with cellphones anyone can be on call. A lot of people have very little to no down time (maybe only when asleep or on the can, and in the case of the latter maybe not even then), being able to be reached by bosses, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances anywhere anytime. A lot people have convinced themselves that they like this, and maybe some do, but those who don’t have had it thrust upon them. I don’t want to be that connected.

    Intellectual laziness has also been severely hastened by the internet. In this article there are several linked words and phrases, etc., so that if you don’t understand them you just have to click and bing there you are. I know that in the past, especially as a child, if I was reading something and came across a word I didn’t understand having to get up and physically look the word up in a dictionary or look something up in an encyclopedia (which involved a trip to the public library) somehow made retaining that information much easier and was more lasting.

    Giving some dirt poor kid in the slums of Calcutta a cellphone and access to all this free information isn’t going to do anything for his poverty or to make it harder for his government to oppress him. I should maybe use China as my example, as countries like China and Russia have found that becoming capitalist but retaining the old Communist way of doing things (as in China and more and more as in Russia today) has made it easier to rule with an iron fist. In China people are making tons of money and when you’re making tons of money you’re less likely to make a fuss about some human rights abuses you hear about. The internet and massive cellphone use don’t come into play when you’re government has as much control over what’s available as China’s does. Ebooks are easier to control in many ways than the old fashioned paper version because if you control the technology you control the content.

  • Davenielsen78

    That political liberation is unfortunately a fantasy. It isn’t supported by the facts. Greater reliance on technology has been shown to make it easier not harder for a government to oppress people. In a country like the United States this isn’t much of a problem, obviously, but in countries like China and Russia it definitely is. Control the technology and you control its content.

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