Robert Samuelson, economic columnist for The Washington Post, says it’s time to admit the Internet was a colossal mistake, shut the damn thing down, and move on.
He might be right.
If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.
Samuelson argues that the threat of interruption of society is so great that life without the Internet is not only possible but preferable for America’s future.
In a report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, acknowledged “staggering losses” of information involving weapons design and combat methods to hackers (not identified, but probably Chinese). In the future, hackers might disarm military units. “U.S. guns, missiles and bombs may not fire, or may be directed against our own troops,” the report said. It also painted a specter of social chaos from a full-scale cyberassault. There would be “no electricity, money, communications, TV, radio or fuel (electrically pumped). In a short time, food and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective.”
Are such threats real or imagined? The news daily is filled with the threat of hackers. Americans have lost millions through email scams. Financial institutions have been hacked. Our government spends billions defending itself from cyber attacks.
Recently, a malicious script that was supposed to add a needed technological repair to ADSL modems that supply high-speed Internet to Floyd County instead disabled hundreds of them and left many residents without Internet, email or IP television.
The most common complaint from those who could not use their data services during the outage was not a lack of email or even the inability to watch their favorite soap operas or other television shows.
Nope. Most complaints centered on an inability to get on Facebook and social network. Have people become so dependent on such impersonal forms of communication that they now lack the ability to deal with others face to face?
Texting on smartphones has become an pervasive — and some might say invasive — part of society. It’s also a threat and too many fatal auto accidents are attributed to distractions from texting and talking on wireless phones while driving.
Samuelson goes on to identify specific cyber terror attacks that hit oil companies and other parts of infrastructure.
All this qualifies our view of the Internet. Granted, it’s relentless. New uses spread rapidly. Already, 56 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones and 34 percent have tablets, says the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing — and the mix may be moving against us.
Life without the Internet. Not that many years ago it wasn’t even part of our lives. Now it is dominant, both in lifestyle and structure.
But is it necessary and worth the risk?