Technological Notes: The Internet is only as good as its users

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The Independent Culture
IS THE Internet a force for good, or evil? On the one hand we have the Government encouraging the nation's schools to get online; on the other hand, the Internet is widely seen as a seedy underworld populated by hackers and pornographers. An educational panacea or hotbed of criminality? The lesson of history is that this is the wrong question to ask.

The truth is that ever since people have invented things, other people have found ways to put those things to criminal use. "It is a well-known fact that no other section of the population avail themselves more readily and speedily of the latest triumphs of science than the criminal class," Inspector John Bonfield, a Chicago policeman, told the Chicago Herald in 1888.

Bonfield was referring not to the Internet, but to its 19th-century ancestor: the electric telegraph, a vast messaging system that spanned the world 150 years ago, linking far-flung countries into a network of constantly updated news, business information and private messages. The telegraph was, in effect, the Victorian Internet.

Today we regard things like hackers, codebreakers and online weddings as uniquely modern phenomena associated with the Internet; but they could all be found on the telegraph network too. Spies and criminals used its wires to send coded messages; others used the network's speed to get advance knowledge of the outcomes of horse races. Illicit romances blossomed between telegraph operators as they tapped away at their Morse keys.

All of which serves to tell us something about the Internet: that the misdeeds perpetrated over its wires and fibre-optic cables should not be blamed on the technology itself, but on its users. The fact that exactly the same sorts of misdeeds were going on in the last century shows that unchanging human nature, rather than fast-moving technology, is the real culprit.

Yet the Internet also has its boosters, who believe that it will usher in a new era of international understanding. In a speech in November 1997, Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT Media Laboratory, declared that the Internet would break down national borders and lead to world peace. In the future, he claimed, children "are not going to know what nationalism is."

Exactly the same wild claims were made about the telegraph, following the completion of the first transatlantic cable in 1858. In 1894, by which time the world had been completely trussed up with telegraph cables, Sir John Pender, chairman of the company that is known today as Cable & Wireless, suggested that telegraphy had "prevented diplomatic ruptures and consequent war, and been instrumental in promoting peace and happiness. The cable nipped the evil of misunderstanding leading to war in the bud." The events of the next decades, of course, proved him wrong.

Given a new invention, there will always be some people who see only its potential to improve the world, while others see new opportunities to get up to no good. The mistake that was made in the last century, and is being made again today, is to think that technology can change human nature; that inventions alone can make us better or worse people.

After the arrest of 200 suspected members of an Internet-based pornography ring earlier this month, one civil liberties lawyer, James X. Dempsey, summed things up perfectly. "The Internet only facilitates crime the way the automobile facilitates crime," he told the Washington Post. "Like any tool, it has pluses and minuses." It was true of 19th-century technology, and it is just as true today.

Tom Standage is the author of `The Victorian Internet: the remarkable story of the telegraph and the 19th-century's online pioneers' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 14.99)