The internet took off in the mass market with astonishing speed, particularly after the invention of web browsers in the early 1990s. Web browsers did for the internet what Windows did for PCs. Ordinary mortals who did not have a degree in cybernetics started to be able to use computers at home and in the office. You no longer needed to memorise obscure or lengthy combinations of letters and keystrokes to get your machine to do even a simple task. A friendly icon beckoned you to click a mouse and “Hey Presto!” something useful or interesting happened in front of your eyes more or less immediately.
In the beginning there was little public understanding of the internet
When the internet explosion began few politicians, public servants, police officers, mainstream journalists or those many other leadership layers that make up civil society truly understood the basics of how the whole thing worked. Neither did lots of people in the high tech industries. There was most definitely a “Priesthood of the Protocol”. We all simply marvelled at and were in awe of what was unfolding. Driven geeky invention met Wall Street. Human fascination with the new and the novel kicked in. Our seemingly limitless capacity and desire to communicate with each other found a fresh and intuitive outlet. Vast fortunes were being made. The technology was becoming a massive spur to job creation and economic development. On every continent governments wanted a part of it. In the liberal democracies few were willing to risk stifling the technology’s obvious potential through hasty regulation.
Reality starts to kick in
Fast forward. The pendulum has swung. The hype has given way to more sober assessments. Growth rates have levelled off in the developed world. We are starting to see political institutions beginning to catch on and catch up. More and more governments, more and more civil servants, regulators of different sorts, police officers, mainstream journalists, civil society leaders of every kind and, at the root of it, Joe and Josephine Public feel they understand the internet a bit better. They and their children are now using it every day. It emboldens them. Much of the magic has evaporated. Silicon Valley’s temporary relocation to the summit of Mount Olympus has ended. Welcome to Planet Earth and mortality.
- Why should the internet be treated differently from other media?
The new assertive self-confidence among the plebs and their representatives is prompting many to ask one very simple question: “Why should we treat the internet differently from any other part of our mass media or our mass communications industries?”
This is creating a dangerous moment. As events around the world have shown repeatedly the internet has a huge potential to promote good but some of what it facilitates is simply bad and wrong. People increasingly feel they no longer need to accept one as the inevitable price that must be paid to allow for the other. And they are right. It isn’t.
- Building alliances, reaching out
Will the pendulum swing too far in the opposite and wrong direction? It is definitely possible. Some of the people who claim to be friends of the internet really ought to develop a more strategic sense of which are the important battles to fight. They might find they have allies beyond the fastness of lawyers’ offices and Nerdland.