Johann Hari: Beware the internet's looming class divide

As the web reshapes our minds and souls, we have to fight to keep it equally open

When I was a child, not so long ago, there was a BBC television programme called Tomorrow's World. Every week, presenters would show us fantastical pieces of technology that would, in The Distant Future, remake the world. A telephone you could carry everywhere, in a little briefcase of its own! A special machine that would tell drivers where they were and supply directions in a smooth, soft voice! Computers all wired together that could communicate across long distances and contain reams of information for all to see!

Now we all live in an episode of Tomorrow's World, faster than we could possibly have imagined. It is easy – and a little trite – to gush with Panglossian glee about the internet. But, still. Today, anyone with a laptop and an internet connection has access to a heftier chunk of humanity's knowledge than the most privileged visitor to the Great Library of Alexandria in the third century BC, or the British Library reading room just a generation ago. Want George Eliot's novels, Einstein's scientific papers or Paris Hilton's genitals? Just click here.

It is hard not to feel dizzy at the bizarre new connections of ideas and people and money suddenly surging across continents. I have a gay Muslim friend, for example, who spends all day talking to Israeli soldiers on webcams, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to persuade them to leave the West Bank. That conversation – and tens of millions even odder still – would have been impossible five years ago. Today, you can almost feel broadband cables hum with them.

It is increasingly clear that the internet is going to be a transformative moment in human history as significant as the printing press. In 1450, a decade after Johannes Gutenberg invented it, even the most astute watchers could have only begun to squint at the changes it would spur. In time, it made popular nationalism possible, because linguistic communities could communicate with each other independently, in one language, and form a sense of community. It dissolved the medieval stranglehold of information held by the churches and Kings, making it possible for individuals to read the Bible for themselves – and to reject violently the readings used by authority to strengthen its rule. Communications technologies rewire our brains; they make us into a different species.

A decade after the invention of the internet, can we too squint at the changes it is bringing? Just as the printing press made it possible for national groups to bond together, the internet makes it possible for pan-national groups to see themselves as one. Oddly, the first group to grasp this ultra-modern potential proprly have been people who pine for the moral strictures of the seventh century desert: radical Islamists.

Thirty years ago, a Muslim lad in Leeds suffering from second-generation blues, who thought he had more in common with a teenager in Gaza or Baghdad or Grozny than with a non-Muslim up the road, would have been very odd. Today, it's not so implausible: he can spend all day speaking to those teenagers on Skype, watching videos of atrocities against them, and dreaming of hellish atrocities of his own.

Al-Qa'ida is increasingly shaped like the internet, with no centre, just thousands of connecting cables at the perimeter, because it is increasingly a product of the internet. Other new identities – ones we can't guess at yet – will burgeon online.

But what effect is the internet having on our thinking muscles? I am torn about this. In his brilliant new book The Assault On Reason, Al Gore argues that we are slowly emerging from the Age of Television. That period, he says, rolled back reasoned thought, because it bombarded us with unthinking emotive images. "The world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation," he says. "Individuals receive, but they cannot send." The internet, by contrast, can mark a rejuvenation of reason and democracy – because it is a return to two-way communication and text.

I instinctively want to agree with Gore, but then I look at the primary form of web-based communication after porn: blogs. With a few exceptions, the form of communication blogs most resemble is talk radio, lending themselves to short bursts of harsh invective. It isn't a medium that talks; it sneers and shouts. This isn't because of the lazy stereotype that bloggers are all sad Pyjamahideen ranting, but because it is a medium consumed in short bursts. It has to catch your attention fast and hard and leave you with a sting.

Most websites are designed on the same assumption: you will spend 10 seconds on each one before you click on, and on, and on. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield says IT culture is changing our neural configurations, shortening our attention spans and whittling down our imaginations. We might have access to the Library of Alexandria but all we are checking out is the contents page and pictures. This is, I sometimes fear, the spider in the world wide web.

But is it true? There is some evidence on the other side: a recent study gave Michigan children computers in their bedrooms in return for monitoring their use. It found their reading scores and their grades were higher the more time they spent online. (Time spent watching TV had the opposite effect). Yet the average time spent reading books is falling in favour of the web. So it seems that reading mostly junk online makes you better at reading books offline, but it also makes you less inclined to do it. It's a strange conundrum: is this a boon or not?

But, amid all these debates, there is a looming, almost unnoticed threat to the future of the internet. The massive corporations that provide broadband own the physical highways of the internet: the wires and cables and switches along which web pages travel before they hit your screen. They have been lobbying in the US and Europe for permission to turn this into a two-lane motorway, with different speeds according to how much you can pay.

Under their proposal, if you are a big corporation like Nike or Microsoft, you would pay a premium fee and travel on the fastest lane, with your page getting to users at super-speed. If you are just an unknown blogger, you pay the standard fee and you will be stuck in the piled-up broadband traffic, taking much longer to update or use. This is called a "tiered" internet – and it has to be resisted. The greatest thing about the web is that the entry costs are so low: we all plug and play on an equal basis. Under the new model, we would no longer compete in a somewhat open market of ideas; instead, arguments would be rigged even more grossly in favour of the rich.

As the internet reshapes our minds and souls in ways we are only beginning to comprehend, we have to fight to keep it equally open to everyone. Otherwise, Tomorrow's World will become a corporate-controlled world, with inequality built into the cables that connect us all.