I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist…

… 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.