2 The explosion of the internet

2.1 Why is this subject important?

No one knows how many people use the internet. By September 2002, NUA estimated that it was about 605 million. It took radio nearly 40 years and television about 15 years to reach an audience of 50 million. The ‘World Wide Web’ part of the internet took just over three years to reach 50 million.

Note that the terms ‘World Wide Web’ and ‘internet’ are often taken to mean the same thing, but these should be distinguished. The internet is the global network of computer networks. The World Wide Web (WWW) is that bit of the internet you can access using a web browser, such as Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The internet, purely on the basis of its growth, constitutes a revolution in communications. The technology has changed the way many of us work, do business and socialise. It is a good idea, therefore, to understand something about it and the policies evolving to govern it (and consequently us).

The really interesting thing about the internet, though, is that it is a system that links the people who use these networks. The internet links a lot of people together. Box 1, below, tells the story of how 5,000 people cooperated to play a simple computer game at a Las Vegas conference in 1991.

Box 1: Playing ‘pong’

At a computer graphics conference in Las Vegas in 1991, Loren Carpenter, one of the technical wizards behind the film Toy Story, conducted an experiment. The 5,000 delegates were given a cardboard wand, green on one side and red on the other. They faced a massive video screen on which was a simple video game called ‘pong’. The audience on the left side of the hall controlled the left paddle of the game and those on the right controlled the right one. Flashing the red side of the wand instructed the paddle to go up; green made it go down. Video cameras scanned the sea of wands and relayed the ‘average’ instructions via computers to the paddles on the screen – so each move of the paddle was the average of 2,500 players' intentions. When the convener shouted ‘go’, in no time the 5,000 were having a pretty reasonable game of pong. It was quite a sensation for the people who were there, according to Kevin Kelly, who wrote about it in his 1994 book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.

If you would like to know more, you can read his captivating description of the event.

Five thousand people playing a computer game? What's that got to do with the impact of the internet? Well, to begin with, those 5,000 people no longer need to be in the same place. They can be linked via the internet.

Suppose a proportion of the ever-increasing number of independent internet users could be focused on tackling some bigger challenge than a game – say the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or medical research on, for example, the human genome, or preservation of ‘fundamental values’ such as freedom. US District Judge Stewart Dalzell, for example, in an important case in the US about free speech on the internet, called the internet ‘the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed’. Alternatively, perhaps this large group of internet users could trigger a series of events leading to a global catastrophe such as nuclear war.

That's the thing about the Net – it has the capacity to be used for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds. It gives me a terrific opportunity to do research and communicate with like-minded people all over the world; but equally it provides criminals with a system that enables them to communicate and plot securely.

We are only starting to realise the potential of the internet. Lawrence Lessig argues in The Future of Ideas that we should be careful about locking the Net up too tightly with regulation or technology intended to control it. It is natural to want to control something that might facilitate bad deeds, but care is required for two reasons.

  1. In trying to alleviate our fear of what criminals might do with the internet, we could easily kill its potential for explosive innovation and social good. This could be described as killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

  2. The law of unintended consequences – the internet is a complex system and complex systems behave in unexpected ways. This is sometimes called ‘emergence’. Attempts to regulate complex systems also have unanticipated or emergent outcomes. Take the recent case of a Turkish hacker who took it upon himself to help the FBI catch two child abusers by spreading a virus via a child pornography newsgroup. This allowed him to collect evidence which he passed on to law enforcement authorities in the USA. However, the Homeland Security Act in the US says that the hacker in this case would be liable to a life sentence in prison. It does not allow for the possibility that a hacker might do good.

We can think of the internet as having parallels with the environment. Both are complex systems with complex ecologies. The technical experts and ecologists understand, to some degree, the effect that changes to these systems will have. Most of the rest of us don't. That is not a criticism. It is impossible even for the experts to completely understand the internet or the environment in their entirety. That's very important to remember – sometimes even the experts don't understand. Alexander Graham Bell had no idea how the telephone would be used when he invented it. Initially he thought it could be used for alert calls to let people know that a telegram was coming. Then he thought it would be progress if there was a phone in every town. He also thought it might be used as a broadcasting device. He never imagined that there might be a phone in every house and that it would be used for personal communications.

In an information society access to, and control of, information is crucial. Who is to ensure that information technologies and the regulations governing them evolve to facilitate more good than bad? What political philosophies will underpin this evolution? Where, how and when will such decisions be made?

Sometimes these issues are left to groups of experts who draft legislation, on intellectual property for example, which potentially has a global effect. Yet an intellectual property expert thinks nothing of sending a letter to a pop music journalist called Bill Wyman to insist he ‘cease and desist’ using his own name because it infringes on the intellectual property rights of his client, Bill Wyman, who used to be a member of the Rolling Stones. This is not a criticism of the lawyer. Within the confines of the complex world of intellectual property law, this lawyer – this expert – could be considered to be acting reasonably in the interests of his client. It seems strange, however, that someone could be threatened with a lawsuit for using their own name.

Jessica Litman, in her book Digital Copyright, describes the process of creating intellectual property legislation in the US as the product of interparty deals. Representatives of the relevant industries get together, hammer out a deal and present the draft legislation to Congress for approval. It is perhaps not surprising that, with this industrial-scale focus, the resultant legislation can lead to odd results, like the Wyman example, when applied at a personal level.

For every human problem there is a solution which is simple, neat and wrong.

(H.L. Mencken)

It might be argued that we have a responsibility to try to understand the internet because it may have a significant effect on our lives. Some people also argue that we have a responsibility as citizens to call our democratic representatives and their experts to account when they are making laws on our behalf. We should understand the intentions guiding those laws, and be able to see when such laws have more wide-reaching effects than originally intended.

The experts, for their part, have a responsibility to translate the complicated issues and explain the systems in ways that non-technical people can understand. Maybe, as James Boyle suggests, the birdwatcher and the duck hunter don't like each other, but they have a shared interest in knowing that a local factory is dumping toxic heavy metals into the birds' habitat and poisoning them. Similarly, we might ask whether both a computer scientist and an artist might have an interest in a shared but endangered (if Lessig is to be believed) information ecology, the internet.

Why is this subject important then? It is important because we need to be streetwise. If the technology is going to have a major impact on us, we should try to understand that technology and the ways it gets regulated.

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions.

(George Bernard Shaw)

2.2 Our digital future … and why it matters