The Internet’s refuted promise

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The Internet’s refuted promise

The Boston bombing highlighted how once again the Internet has become so important - and sometimes deadly - to our lives. While one may say that the Internet’s benefits obviously outweigh its negatives, we still don’t know its overall impact on our civilization.

I am not a Luddite. I generally am an “early adopter” of computer- and Internet-based technologies. In fact, I can remember as a young family man when all of these exciting technologies began creeping into our daily lives.

In the early eighties, we were “overwhelmed” by information overload coming into our homes with as many 60 channels of cable television and the introduction of VHS (or Beta) tape recorders into our homes. And if that was not enough, we started reading about the Internet being used by the military and certain research centers, with futurists predicting that someday we would all have a computer (who could imagine more than just one?) in each of our homes, networked with other leading edge computer users.

Later as we discovered (and hated) DOS and early Windows, we were occasionally distracted from our PC frustrations by magazine articles about the World Wide Web running over the Internet. Through improved interfaces, we read we would have unbelievable access to libraries and other information sources.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect to these Internet promises was that human knowledge would expand and multiply - right down into our homes and around the world. Human understanding would expand and the world would shrink as we all began to understand and appreciate each other.

And the proposition was reasonable. After all, as recent as the 1970s we Americans were pretty much restricted to essentially three national television networks from which most families made it weekday rituals to take in the evening news programs. There was not a great deal of variety among the three competing channels, but all three did their best in 30 minutes to cover the world in terms of events, politics, business and entertainment.

As youngsters, we often were bored by the business and political news items, but we patiently sat through those news segments to see how the sports teams were faring. In the process, a funny thing occurred. Our world gradually expanded as many of us young sports fans started paying attention to the political news and even the business news.

The news largely came from moderate news sources, largely created by liberal journalists while mostly constrained by conservative advertisers. If we wanted alternative programming, there were a couple of local TV stations that catered to local tastes and interests.

Returning to the 1980s, we found alternative news sources, such as public broadcasting (PBS) which was decidedly more progressive and eventually there were other channels providing more conservative perspectives. And all was good.

But a subtle change began taking place. Liberals started to watch more PBS than regular broadcasting and conservatives eventually found Fox News. As the Internet became more accessible in the home and office, new information sources began to rapidly expand in number. Individuals began producing and sharing content via personal web sites and later social media. And all of this should have been very, very good.

But has it been so?

Rather than expanding most people’s minds, we now have news sources being increasingly target market focused - often pandering to a preconceived group’s ideas and prejudices. Instead of nationally shared news bringing societies together, we have witnessed fragmentation and eventually polarization where each group is too busy getting more information through its own crafted lens to bother to try getting the same news from other perspectives.

In the U.S., there are red and blue states, where one can easily imagine which disparate information resources are popular where. No wonder that fragmented nation generally has trouble viewing society and the rest of the world from a common viewpoint. As much as Americans love to blame Washington politicians for a dysfunctional government, it is these same people who vote and maintain extremists on the left and right in office. Rarely does a voter acknowledge that he or she is voting for an unreasonable candidate. But what is “reasonable” is often defined by how the voter forms opinions from which news sources.

Returning to the Boston bombing, we witnessed self-radicalized young men, who largely got their information from the Internet. With search engines, one can find just about anything. Presumably, the brothers found brightly lit pathways to radical Islam, bomb making and other forms of mayhem. While we don’t know to what degree if the older brother was trained when he went back home to Tajikistan, it is safe to assume he and his brother were able to keep in contact with extremists using the Internet to learn dogma and war craft.

My concern is not terrorist information on the Internet. But I worry that the Internet helps isolate marginalized people who find succor through a real or imagined cyber community of extremists. This past month we have had seen an example of Islamic radicalism. Tomorrow we may see some other kind of extremism with nothing in common with Islam. In any case, individuals wearing blinders continue to walk their increasingly isolated paths with less awareness, empathy and tolerance.

So beyond the extremism, are the terrorists’ world views so different than many of us? Today is a far cry from when some of us were kids, sitting together on the floor to watch the nightly national news.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global Big Six executive recruitment consulting company.

by Tom Coyner
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