It’s no point of contention that the internet has changed and will continue to change society in a revolutionary manner. True to his pioneering outlook, David Bowie successfully predicted in 1999 interview that “the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. We are on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying”. In response to the suggestion that the internet was ‘just a tool’, Bowie responded that it was ‘an alien life form’. Eighteen years on, and the zenith of this technological revolution remains to be reached. Whether it will create a utopian or dystopian future remains to be seen.
Recently, I was at the British Library and accidentally tore a page from a 1947 book. In a fit of absent-mindedness, I decided to post this on Twitter in the hopes of entertaining my very small number of followers. To my surprise, the British Library replied to my tweet almost instantly and within five minutes a staff member had come over to my desk to berate me. I found myself musing on how the scenario was like a less sinister scene from Orwell’s 1984. Instantaneity has become a new energy in our society. And this isn’t necessarily a positive development: as Ruby Wax explores in Sane New World, mental illness stems from a conflict between the old reptilian parts and the more recently evolved parts of the human brain. For instance, our ability to plan and think ahead in conjunction with our adrenaline-inducing reactions inherited from our ancient ancestors means that humans are in the unenviable position of being able to cry about something that hasn’t happened yet, or get angry about something that happened in the past. We may not yet be evolved enough to sustain the emotive onslaught that the emerging information society may prove to be. In the long term, assuming the human race survives many of the clear and present dangers to its existence, the internet will likely change our brains in unimaginable ways. A positive scenario would see current mental illnesses subside as we become more accustomed to permanent and perpetual emotional and cognitive interaction and therefore the internalisation rather than expression becomes the exception rather than the norm. A less optimistic scenario is that the internet permanently exacerbates suffering for the mentally ill. Just imagine all the reclusive depressed people who, through Facebook, are bombarded with a constant stream of photos and videos proving how much fun everyone else around them is having.
The implications of instantaneity and the internet for our socio-economic system are not yet being sufficiently explored. To the prophets of neoliberalism, the internet was supposed to deliver a new lease of life to consumer capitalism in the same manner as the railways did in the 1850s and electricity did in the 1890s. After all, you can now purchase a sofa on your phone through Amazon without even being in your house. The chairman of DFS must be rubbing his bourgeois hands with delight. But things aren’t as simple as they might look. As Paul Mason argues in Postcapitalism: A guide to our future, the emergence of an ‘information society’ could erode traditional price mechanisms in the economy through the provision of non-rival goods and the automation of production. This could gradually, as the title suggests, destroy capitalism. Take a look at the music industry. Traditionally, a certain quantity of albums are produced to be sold on a competitive basis. But now, if I download David Bowie’s Blackstar from iTunes, this won’t prevent my neighbour from downloading the same product; there is unlimited supply, and therefore little room in the long run for profit. The rise of Spotify correlated with the fall of HMV. And while one might argue that the market merely has a new oligopoly regime rather than facing its imminent demise, the explosion in illegal downloads suggests otherwise.
This all points to a future where the internet proves to be communitarian rather than individualistic. Our current culture would encourage us to be in intense competition with one another, but what the internet shows us is an older generation desperately trying to impose redundant property rights on a younger generation who are more eager in the provision of public goods. Just look at Wikipedia; a non-profit organisation that is still run by a tiny number of people, a massive and constantly updated encyclopaedia available to anyone with internet access. Might this lead to a more equal world? The more dystopian idea is that the internet fails to break down our socially constructed hierarchies. This is most apparent with patriarchy. On Twitter, even the uncontroversial opinions of female celebrities are met with rape and murder threats that the average male celebrity simply does not receive. Alternatively, one can hope that if internet comments now have almost immediate repercussions in real life (as I discovered at the British Library) then it is also possible that bigots will no longer feel protected by the perceived detachment from reality the internet has hitherto provided.
This communitarian element of an information society could dramatically change politics, too. The significant role that social media played in the 2011 Arab Spring has been widely acknowledged. But could there be wider repercussions? Instead of merely challenging the authority of dictatorial regimes, is it possible we could be living through the end of nation states as we known them? Although trade globalisation is threatened by the rise of protectionists, attempts to restrict the globalisation of information are proving less successful. In spite of the fact that the Chinese government have banned Twitter, China has the greatest number of registered Twitter users in the world. The millennial generation use VPNs to get around state regulations on the flow of knowledge. If the authoritarian government of a country that comprises a fifth of humanity cannot prevent a teenager in their bedroom from using social media, then who knows what the state might look like in another twenty years from now?
Most radically of all, what if the internet itself transcends beyond human control and literally becomes the ‘alien life form’ that Bowie spoke of? It already displays the fundamentals of a complex, intelligent life form. In 2016, a team from the LSE created a system that can recognise twelve human emotions from tone of speech in real-time. Ever more advanced robots are being designed, and they learn a great deal about humans and our personalities from the internet. We are all familiar with Terminator as the potential dystopian scenario here. As a species, we need to start thinking seriously about how profoundly technology is going to change us, in order to forge an egalitarian, progressive, and very human information society.
Disclaimer: this article was originally published (in an edited form) in Steal This Magazine (Issue No. 4) (http://stealthismagazine.tumblr.com/)