How the Web Has Changed Our Lives

by Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest Business School.

A dual anniversary

The year 2019 is a dual anniversary: ARPANET, the network designed to meet military and academic purposes was established 50 years ago, and the world wide web, allowing for the civil use of the network, was launched 30 years ago.

How has the rise of the internet transformed our lives? What were the early predictions—and have they come true? 

Innovations and their aftermath

Accounts of the history of the media tell us that the inventors of new technology themselves were often unable to foresee the societal uses of their innovations. The telegraph, created by Samuel Morse and his colleagues, was originally to ease the transfer of information from one place to another (e.g., to let the next railway station know that the train would be late), yet the wireless has also contributed to the rise of the ‘news paradigm’ in journalism, focusing on facts and omitting comments, as correspondents had to pay for every single word transmitted. The photography invented by Nicéphore Nièpce and Louis Daguerre was to allow for pictures of the real world to be made fast, but at the same time it also gave rise to abstract painting and thus changed the history of art. Thomas Edison’s phonograph was meant to be a voice recorder for telephones, but, ultimately, it also launched the music industry and transformed the ways people spend their leisure time.

Media are born twice: first as a technological, and then as a societal invention. Society always needs time to adapt to new technology. The physical givens of any new means of communication define its potential uses, but the ways it actually comes to be used are also shaped by society’s needs, as well as the interests of political and business actors. As will be seen, the same holds for the internet.

Cyber-optimists vs. cyber-pessimists

Early theorists of the internet agreed—in line with the famous concept of the ‘memex,’ proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945—that the internet would hugely improve the amount of information accessible, as well as to ease access to it. They also agreed that it would enable users to engage in real time communication, and that it would transform the traditional hierarchical pattern of one-to-many communication into one of many-to-many communication, with major political and societal outcomes.

What these outcomes would exactly be, however, has been a matter of debate. As so often in the history of the media, two major streams of opinions emerged. Cyber-optimists stressed that the new medium would decrease the costs of political information and participation, and would thus counter social and political inequalities. As an ‘electric agora,’ it would provide a platform for online deliberation, online voting, as well as for the mobilisation of society for good causes; for example, Ted Nelson’s Comp Lib movement in the 1970s advocated the view that the new medium would give voice to the voiceless. Ultimately, the net would rejuvenate democracy. This approach is usually described as the ‘equalisation hypothesis.’

In contrast, cyber-pessimists suggested that the new technology would simply recreate and reinforce the existing cleavages that cut through societies. The ‘digital divide’ would separate the rich from the poor, the educated from the uneducated, those in the cities and those in rural areas, as well as those in the First and those in the Third World, just like literacy did after the invention of printing. In other words, it would be ‘business as usual.’ They also warned that—in line with Orwell’s famous novel 1984—new technology would enable power holders to easily monitor citizens’ every step. This approach is usually described as the ‘normalisation hypothesis.’

Some of the most interesting predictions were made by Manuel Castells who, in his famous trilogy warned that the internet would enhance political, cultural and linguistic globalisation, which, along with the world-wide spread of neo-liberal economic policies, could fuel the rise of national and religious radicalism. The homogenising impact of globalised media may, paradoxically, trigger a new need for communal and individual identities, and therefore promote the fragmentation of societies and the polarisation of politics. Castells’ predictions were later confirmed by events and developments such as the terror attack against the World Trade Centre, the election victory of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

Polarisation, populism, and the personalisation of politics

How the internet has exactly changed the world has been well documented by a number of authors, including, among others, Paul Hodkinson and Elena Johanson. The Web 2.0, created well after Castells’ trilogy was published, offers an unprecedented deal of interactivity, and transforms users into producers. The filtering and mediating role of traditional journalists has largely faded away; to date, there is no one there to double-check information and to make sure that the discussion remains rational in nature (albeit Facebook has now began, in some countries, to flag unverified content as such). Detailed analysis and meaningful deliberation have given way to black-and-white interpretations of the real world, outright lies, and instant moralisation. The actual practice of the public sphere is increasingly at odds with Jürgen Habermas’ famous ideal of that sphere. Communication-as-information has given way to communication-as-ritual, to use the terms introduced by James W. Carey. Digital media are often used to express and to re-enforce identities, but less frequently to exchange views in an open-ended debate.

Further, professional journalists have also lost their agenda-setting function, while politicians have become news sources in their own right on social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. They can now directly communicate with voters, by-passing journalists who might ask questions. Direct communication between political leaders and citizens has also curtailed the role that political parties had traditionally played in politics: parties are no longer able to efficiently select among aspiring political leaders. In brief, the decline of the traditional journalistic and political elites has enhanced populism and the personalisation of politics. It is no longer the party that has a leader but the leader who has a party. Populist politicians tend to mobilise voters by advocating particular interests and enhancing identity policies rather than promoting democratic cohesion and enhancing the public interest.

In addition to this, as we can see it on a daily basis, the internet is not only a forum for free information but also one for manipulation. There have, of course, always been fake news (previously known as hoaxes, urban legends, and conspiracy theories), but then these were traditionally delivered by one single news source. To date, by contrast, some governments—profiting from the decline of the journalistic profession—use the internet to conduct disinformation campaigns on a massive scale, and the fake news reaching audiences from multiple sources simultaneously have a greater potential of influencing the public.

Who was right—and who wasn’t?

Who were then right, the cyber-optimists or the cyber-pessimists?

This question is all the more difficult to answer as the role played by the internet, and especially that played by the Web 2.0, may vary across countries. Moreover, its role may differ across individual users. Facebook has been the first medium ever that offers content tailored to meet each and every user’s specific needs.

Some general observations, however, may be formulated. Cyber-optimists were certainly right when suggesting that the internet would ease political participation. But that is of little benefit for the democratic order—and in this, the cyber-pessimists were right. In fact, the net is the first communication tool that has made the traditional, hierarchical forms of communication obsolete, as well as destroyed the boundaries between interpersonal and mass communication, and thereby has empowered the ‘average citizen’ to voice his or her concerns. But this, at the same time, also implies that traditional elites have lost control over communication. The quantity of the communicated messages may have grown, but their quality seems to have worsened. Information may be easier to access, but it is less reliable. The public discourse that is taking place on online platforms is, as we experience it daily, a fairly low-quality confrontation of views rather than the meaningful exchange of ideas. Moreover, it is often further spoiled by trolls, many of whom are paid by political actors, which often alienates citizens from any form of political participation.

This is, of course, not to say that the mass media, once an earthly heaven, have been transformed into hell; the purely elitist nature of the legacy media was a reason for concern, too. In fact, the role of the user had begun to grow well before the web, at around 1945 when the first FM radio stations were launched, or perhaps even earlier when the first tabloid newspapers came out at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It remains, however, that the optimistic idea that a greater deal of political participation through the media would lead to a higher level of democracy has proven naive. The internet seems to promote a cacophony of noises rather than the rational discussion of public matters.

Legacy media traditionally had a homogenising impact: it offered common knowledge, experience and values to great numbers of people. The new media, however, with all the diversified content they have to offer, enhance the fragmentation of society and the polarisation of politics, as well as the rise of populism and the personification of politics. Overall, therefore, it seems that cyber-optimist scenarios have proven false, whereas the pessimist ones have largely come true. The public sphere that was once, at least on the national level, united, is now gone, and multiple, parallel, public spheres have taken it over.

* * *

Last, but not least, the rise of the internet has had another unwanted effect that early medium theorists have failed to foresee. It has, along with the smart phone and cheap flights, enhanced the globalisation of the economy, as neo-liberal policy has accelerated the free movement of capital, technology, and work labour across countries and continents. To date, multinational companies place production in faraway countries previously untouched by the industrial revolutions—and have exported mass pollution along with it. Owing to neo-liberal policies, the economic crisis that began in the 1970s may now be gone for good, but pollution has become a global problem, and so has climate change.

(first published in Hungarian in the weekly magazine
Élet és Irodalom under the title “Mit köszönhetünk
az internetnek?” on 23 August 2019)

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