The Cart Before the Horse?

The suddenness of the changes engendered by the Internet's arrival has frequently been taken for profundity.

On the one hand, the Internet is a technology for communication. The trouble here is that I don't see a lot more realized potential than untapped potential. The last two centuries' advances in communications technology have basically made, in theory, every significantly-inhabited point on the earth equidistant in communications terms. There's some room for extension -- higher mountain tops and further out at sea -- but we're not really going to bring New York and New Delhi any closer than they are already. There's room for bandwith expansion, but what are we going to do with that bandwidth? Whether people will ever accept virtual reality as a substitute for physical presence is an issue of psychology and sociology, not technology. And if they do, will it be connectivity -- the Internet -- or simulation - not the Internet -- that they choose? I don't know.

David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, wrote the jesting retrospective history of the great videophone flop, and I think a lot of his points hold up pretty well: there are some distinct advantages to low-fi communications media, chief among them that one may actually be capable of more subtle expression over the phone, say, than in person, precisely because one's facial expressions are not on display. Technological possibility alone does not cause disruptive revolutionary adoption: the Chinese got along just fine with the printing press and gunpowder without having their world stood on its head by either.

On the other hand, the Internet is a technology for information processing. Since any computer can wallop data, we usually think of the Internet as combining data streams in novel ways, in allowing the rapid cross-referencing of information from multiple sources to extract interesting nuggets. Which is all well and good, but what does this really change in a fundamental sense? Businesses and governments will have better and more comprehensive information in making decisions, true, but behind almost every bad decision one finds not the unavailability of information but instead someone's willful ignorance of it.

The much-touted economic revolutions of the e-commerce era -- the Amazons and eBays and pure B-to-B plays -- all depend just as much on the existence of an advanced delivery and financial infrastructure as they do on the Internet. Amazon, in its bookseller role, offers you nothing you couldn't do for yourself with a copy of Books in Print, a telephone, and some patience. What it and its brethren are doing is optimizing the front-end, removing those slow and expensive people from the routinized customer-service tasks that computers can handle.

Which brings up my other major point of skepticism. The "knowledge worker" is supposedly the new hero of the Internet age, the one whose ship is coming in. And yet, paradoxically, it is these pure-information mavens, the ones who traffic entirely in abstractions and data, whose work is the sort of virtual twiddling that the machines were supposed to take over for us. In the long view, the knowledge worker is a passing phase, a symptom of the time when the heuristics and data-mining technology lagged behind the raw data-processing tech. We'll still need interpreters of data and inputters thereof, people to design and build the computer systems themselves, but the modern notion of a corporation as a modular and highly-adaptable highly-intelligent information-processing unit sounds an awful lot like what we're trying to train the computers to do.

Heap all the scorn you want, but the meatworld isn't going away: people gotta eat, people gotta have a roof over their heads, and even if the houses are built by machines, someone's still gotta build the machines and fix them when they break and keep an eye on them while they work. Humanity just isn't going virtual and disappearing in a cloud of bits any time soon. And if it does, then it won't be by virtue of any technology any of us could reasonably predict.

I think the real changes to watch for are the cultural and philosophical ones. Culture's malleability makes it a bit prone to change anyway, so it's perhaps not saying so much to say that Internet is going to cause some cultural changes, but I think the Internet is set to have a major long-term cultural impact. The centuries-long transition to mass literacy caused by the printing press and the twentieth century's more compressed creation of a richly visual culture, I think, significantly affected both humanity's experience of the world and its self-perception. In a very real sense, the Internet and its fellow-traveler computer technologies are starting to raise serious philosophical issues in ways that have major practical import.

One might talk about the ethical issues raised by genetic and medical technology, but these cases pale, I think, before the questions raised by computer and network technology. Our notions of intellectual property are being shaken right now by Internet-enabled technology, but these upheavals are really only symptoms of the collapse of certain assumptions that we used to be able to lean on to avoid having to actually deal with the real philosophical issues: what, exactly, is an idea, and what is its connection with tangible reality?

Or, on another front, what does it mean to be human? We've had an easy time of it, I think, because the only fringe cases we've had to deal with have been exceptionally smart animals, people with severe brain trauma, and thought experiments. Turing pointed out the reworking of our ideas of identity and personhood that computers would require over fifty years ago. That no one since then has advanced at all beyond Turing's original questions, I think, indicates just how far we have to go.

If nobody knows you're a dog on the Internet, are we about to radically transform what it means to be dealing with people? If the Internet makes place irrelevant, what is going to happen to our notions of home, of place-based identity? If every identifying detail about you is on the Net somewhere, are you defined by the information out there or by some unknowable and inexpressible hidden psychic core? What will it mean to be part of a community when that community is no longer defined by any concrete expression or action, and how will we relate to others in "public" life?

I recognize that a lot of these questions hint at precisely the sort of large-scale tangible change I've been so skeptical of. But I guess that's because I see possible changes such as "the collapse of the sovereign nation-state" as flowing from the combined changes in individual perceptions of the world, rather than the other way around. Commonly agreed-upon notions are what hold together our social and cultural institutions. Extrapolating the external changes and only afterwards inquiring about the internal ones seems to me a case of putting the cart before the horse, precisely because those subsequent external changes are being caused by the internal ones.

The interesting changes that will come of the Internet will be the ones that involve humanity's understanding of itself. Everything else is just a side effect.