A rethink about the Net

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The Independent Culture
WHEN GUTENBERG'S press fired its first info salvos into an unsuspecting world, there were a few optimistic souls who saw it as a tool that would change things for the better.

Some 500 years later, many, myself included, have been of a not dissimilar opinion - that the Internet will make the world a better place.

Perhaps it's time for a rethink. After all, Gutenberg's first mission was to print the Bible, and it's hard to see how that could make the world worse. But, in many respects, the world did get worse on account of the printing press. Mean-spirited tomes could be published as easily as good ones. The fact that people had an inexpensive way to influence large groups of people was bound to create friction.

But at least one observer says that the vernacular Bible, printed in languages other than Latin, helped bring large, previously fractious groups together into what became nations, people sharing a common language. While that may seem like a good idea, nations eventually got around to coveting their neighbour's stuff, and pretty soon you had behaviour such as imperial expansion and global wars to add to humanity's misery.

The Church eventually caught on to the fact that vernacular Bibles were having unexpected consequences, and tried to ban them. When Europe was a largely illiterate place, the Catholic Church held great power, in part because it had a monopoly on information, kept in a code, Latin, that only the elite faithful could read and pass on to the masses.

It was like owning the only television network, and running commercials only for The One True Product.

The vernacular Bibles were a reason for more people to aspire to learn to read, which led to local opportunities to influence the masses.

Though books could be distributed locally pretty quickly, it took a while for word to get to Rome, and longer for the response to return.

While he was perhaps best known for his written missives, Martin Luther used the press particularly effectively to fly in the face of Rome's authority. Luther's published writings were so effective that for a time the King of France banned all books within his borders to make it harder for people to conceal Luther's proscribed texts in his Catholic realm.

That may have been a classic case of shooting the messenger, and an inanimate messenger at that, but Luther also exploited the press by actively founding schools to teach people, especially children, to read, to influence young minds with his version of the Word.

Since books also helped to accelerate and spread technology, they can share some of the blame for the misuse of said technology.

Gutenberg and those who followed probably didn't set out to make it easy to distribute plans for weapons, artillery tables and the like, but there were certainly unexpected consequences from the changes wrought by the invention of printing.

And so I have to wonder whether this millennium's latest contribution to shifted paradigms, the Internet, won't nurture ill along with good.

I've often thought that children who grow up on a global network, e-mailing peers around the world, will be much less fearful and suspicious of other tribes.

Indeed, it seems as if the world has begun a shift to a place where national boundaries and ethnicities count less, and shared interests and ideas count more.

I've watched my teenage stepson engage in conversations with German children - and other kids from who knows where - in chat rooms or via e-mail because they liked the same sort of very loud music. Their conversations were much less about their respective countries and much more about MTV.

Certainly, hate sites are an unwelcome addition to the World Wide Web. Hateful people have always exploited whatever medium was handy - bathroom walls, for example - to spread their vile wares.

No great surprise, I guess, that they've found the Net. But, the subject here is unintended consequences, and hate-mongers actively promote evil outcomes - there's nothing unintended or unexpected about their expression.

What sorts of things may there be lurking beyond the ken of generations raised with one-way publishing - print and broadcast - as the world goes to two-way networks? Lacking experience, we're probably missing some of the things, and those somethings may be pretty nasty.

We have already seen the sorts of antics that hackers can get up to. Some guy half a world away can type some code and name it after a topless dancer in a Florida bar, and suddenly, I've got a big problem right here in my office or den.

Do you recall any Internet pundits forecasting the Melissa virus?

And the global network's millions of computers mean that the hackers can take advantage of some well-known maths to do really rotten things. Melissa tapped into geometric growth by getting every computer it infected to send an infection to 50 more, meaning that pretty soon the virus was actively being spread by computers at the rate of 50 times 50 times 50 times - you get the idea. Melissa evinces power that a Luther could only long for.