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By John S Veitch

The Internet - How is it changing society?

Technology Enables Social and Economic Change

The Internet is changing society in ways that nobody understands.

People who know little, talk as though the volume of data being interchanged is a measure of real value.  They call it information, even if most of what is exchanged is, video and sound files.  You can count the number of connections to the Internet, but that too is a very poor measure of value.

Even in 2005 more than 50% of those connected to the internet have less than 300 hours experience of it's use.  The number of new users is still growing rapidly. The internet is dominated by newbies, not by experience.  We are a long way from living in an www link"information age".

Once on the Internet people will tend to connect to the wide world first.  There is huge demand to be www linka citizen of the world, so sources of information and links to other people tend not to be local.  It's clear today in ways that were not so obvious six or seven years ago that the Internet is intrinsically world wide first, distance is not important.  This desire to share ideas across national boundaries offers a lot of hope for the future of the world.

There is plenty of room for people to do new and creative things on the internet.  We need more people who are engaged with other people in a meaningful way.  That means that the peer to peer part of the internet needs to grow and develop.

In the 1990's we expected that a cyber community would develop, and www linkHoward Rheingold in particular wrote with passion about how that was happening.  But in fact it hasn't happened. Most people can't imagine how they could be part of a world wide community of practice.  Very few people understand how to communicate with others and how to create cooperative spaces for shared work.

An Open Environment

I like to imagine a world where people are using the Internet to learn about the world.  They need to develop links with other people who have similar interests and they will then be able to learn by sharing ideas and opinions.  The peer to peer internet is essentially a social space where people meet to exchange ideas, where they can cooperate with each other, and where each person is both a student and a teacher.

That internet exists now.  I'm a member of that social, practical, useful and supportive internet community.  Some of us have created a small part of cyberspace that is well controlled and useful.  What we have is available to everyone, but each person must choose to become a member.  Only a small fraction of all internet users know about a socially connected, co-operative and personally useful internet that they might become part of.

Here is the promise that virtually everyone in a modern society can claim.  You can become a member of a group who learn together, and that develops a community of shared understanding and shared practice.

Problems on the Internet

The attacks on news groups, the viruses, the spam and the commercial abuse of the internet has redirected our attention from the good things we hoped to do.  Usenet with a very low level of inbuilt protection was destroyed by abuse and attacks by people who were not members and who didn't care about the effect of their abuse.  Abuse of email, web sites and blogs is a continuing problem, but most modern systems are built to exclude the uninvited intruder.

There's a lot of foolish nonsense spoken about how much of the data transmitted on the Internet is pornography.  It's true that those selling pornography were the first businesses to be profitable on the internet.  In the process they were leaders in developing shopping carts and payment systems and even affiliate programmes.  They were also leaders in developing search bots and flooding the internet with spam.

I don't approve of the business, but it exists.  But it's also small beer.  Take a list of the top 100 sites on the internet.  Not one of those sites is a source of pornography.

A tool for Living

Internet use is becoming a necessary tool for all citizens in a modern society.

No matter where we live we face the questions:

Who am I?
What is this world like?
Who and what can I rely on?
What should I choose to do?

Use of the internet will give people new ideas and will give existing ideas strength extending to action.  Having such access is a critical part of being a modern citizen in a modern society.  In the next 30 years many things will change, businesses, institutions and governments will be called to account.

Government Control

It's natural for governments to want to control changing outcomes.  Some things are not so easy to control and the Internet is clearly one of those situations.  But we've faced this question before.  Education has that same potential to both help and to force changes on us.  It's good for people to get an education, but educated people might want some things that were never demanded before.  The internet will generate that sort of pressure, in homes in business and in the wider community.

I see the possibility that using the Internet will give communication freedom to the people of every nation.  I am aware that freedom to communicate is seen as a threat by some people, by some cultural groups and by some governments.  I don't ignore those fears, but we think they are best faced by encouraging communication rather than restricting it.

If there is little integrity in high places, everything we try to do is threatened by the whim of the people who seek unfair advantage and get their way.  Then each Rembrandt we are enticed to buy with our dreams and hard earned cash, turns out to be a fake, just like the last one.  Each promise becomes a promise not fulfilled.

In contrast to their status, scientists, doctors, religious leaders and lawyers have shown little ability to distinguish fact from fiction when the subject concerns their professional conduct.  They are seemingly very much like politicians.  They respond to criticism much like the medieval Church.

Scientific and professional groups "close ranks" against investigations of their members.  Groups established to investigate fraud are underfunded, fed on pseudo information and misdirected by those in authority.  The illusion that this is a fair and open process is maintained by the orchestration of carefully prepared statements. The cost of this charade to society is immeasurable.  It cuts at the very root of our integrity.

Drug barons know that "everyone can be purchased." In the drug world commercial relationships are enforced by violence.  Broken bones and death are the price of not keeping to the contract.  If we don't choose to live by high standards that honour truth and quality data then our society will become more and more disfunctional.  If the market is the only law, those with money and power control everything.  The drug barons, the warlords and criminals will rule. 

Civil society in the final analysis can only exist within a framework of laws that most people respect and try to uphold.  The process that selects law-makers and that changes and regulates the law is vital to a civil society.  The integrity of that process ultimately depends on the community.  When we accept the lies we tell each other as truth we begin to corrupt the process.  Deliberately distorting the truth to take advantage, whether by individuals, companies or political parties does not create a "free society".

The result of treating a politician's lies as "truth" because "he's our chosen leader" creates a rotten democracy and a disfunctional society.  A modern person refuses to play that silly game.  Modern people are human, they can be purchased, but hopefully not by 10 promises that will later be broken and a handful of lottery tickets.

Towards More Democracy

An information society cannot exist in the old world political ghetto where privileged elite's pretend to be the legitimate eyes, ears and voices of disempowered ordinary people.

The process of Internet use is highly democratic.  Experience of peer to peer freedom will pose challenges to institutions, businesses and governments that are dominated from the top.  Non-democratic communities are incongruous alongside the communication tools of the internet which allow individuals to share ideas and ideals with their peers around the world.  The powerful and the powerless have every similar "power" on the Internet.

That openness cannot exist alongside closed systems of thinking and control.  Everywhere, even in some widely touted "democracies" political power is concentrated.  In many countries "official sources" of information are controlled by the same political groupings often by the same family names that were in control 20 years ago, sometimes 40 years ago.  So there is a divide, the divide between those who have power and would like to sustain that power, and the general community in every country.

Computer aided communication encourages peer to peer exchanges of ideas across the world.  Many of the ideas shared will challenge the accepted status quo and the world view of those who currently hold power.  Every nation has to decide how they will react to that. 

Information Awareness

Information is the presentation of data in a new form that explains what the situation is and allows decision making or action.  We do have the potential to create an "information society" but we seem to be stuck with an anti-information society at the moment.

A critical mass of information aware citizens will make change possible.  When more people are information aware, the barriers to doing essential things will tend to fall.

It's not that the issues are unknown.  It's usually not the case that we don't know what we need to do.  There is a lack of commitment to change as quickly as modern communication demands.  Meanwhile we are trapped by past propaganda into supporting ideas that tend to get in the way rather than help future development.

Newspapers, radio and television carry broadcast messages. From broadcast media I can learn about some things in a general way, but the news is often "spun" and mis-reported.  The mass media explain the "pop-culture" of the time, ways of dress, popular sayings, urban myths, who the "stars" of sport, film and music are supposed to be.  The news media also disseminate the "official view" of political and business leaders.

Global Economy

As www linkChina and www linkIndia enter the mainstream of the global economy there will be increased competition and falling real incomes in the USA, Canada and across much of Europe.  Not only will there be competition from cheaper products on the market, there will also be increased competition for resources.  There is a defense against this, a defense being largely ignored.

The solution is www linkmassive re-education of the adult population so that people have a real chance to re-invent themselves.  The solution is for the modern and advanced economies to innovate and change the focus of their economic production.

The misdirected "War of Terror" is absorbing the resources that the world should be putting into improving the life chances of three billion people who live in less developed countries.  Economist www linkJeffrey Sachs has accepted from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the responsibility for putting the
www linkMillennium Development Goals of the United Nations into action.  So far we've seen 5 years of doing very little.

Sacks says this is a doable task and he's asking governments to make the commitment to act.  It takes only understanding and political will.  But the political will isn't present.  We've seen where the failure to provide for the people in poverty stricken countries can lead.  Afghanistan was one of those.

We are seeing HIV-aids destroy the population of many African counties.  This has been caused by lack of education, lack of medical care and blatant failure of many governments to act in time or at all.  The consequence might be several million angry young people, without parents, without education, without hope, condemned to short lives. There is potential for trouble there.

New Sources of News

Perhaps the Middle Eastern web site www linkAl Jazeera and the www linkBaghdad Blogger each point out an aspect of our changing future.

Al Jazeera is an underfunded organization trying to tell "our story" from a Middle Eastern perspective.  While in the West, there is often skepticism about this, independent observers report that a very high standard of journalism exists and that Al Jazeera news reports can normally be relied upon.  Sadly that's not been the case in the last few years for much Western media.

The Baghdad Blogger was one man who was cut off and isolated.  He represents all of us is that way.  He had local knowledge.  He reported to his friends and he didn't imagine that what he was saying was of any great significance.  Except that his reports were to become the only reports from "inside" the war zone.  Eventually thousands of people were reading his online reports.

The small personal web site you are now using and thousands like it are trying to define something of value and to make it public.  There are hundreds or thousands of bloggers.  Most of them writing unimportant details about events that need concern nobody.  Some of them make sense and some of them don't.  All of them are learning some new skills.  Hopefully they are learning to write.  Who knows which one of them will become the source, the witness, the key to understanding that we all rely on at some future time.

www linkPeer to peer publishing is a runaway train, a revolution that cannot be stopped.  It's success will finally make the "information age" possible.  I see my role in that change and I invite you to become part of that movement too.  Start by reading, join with others, take responsibility for your own education.  No matter how insecure and ill at ease you feel now, in a few years you'll be confident and informed and you'll know what to do.

Niche Users of the Internet

I discovered many years ago that the people on the edges of society are the most compelled to connect to the internet.  The discounted and the voiceless are very active here.  My first experience of that was with the NZ Dances web site.  I built personal contacts in many small towns all over New Zealand and the web site was online for two years before people in Auckland our largest City showed any interest.

People who imagine themselves to be "in the center of activity" are not driven to find and develop connections to other people. www linkPeople on the fringes demand inclusion.

All I know about the use of IRC and much of my early learning about web page design was demonstrated to me by brain-injured people around the world.  In 1997 they ran their own IRC channel, had many web sites, and were giving each other strong support.  They were much better informed and connected than teachers, businessmen or politicians.  Years ahead.

For them it was important, although they got little or no recognition, even from those who were leaders of brain injury support organizations.  Their efforts to improve their own lives were often obstructed and opposed by doctors and the hospital system.  They fought daily battles to get proper care and assistance, understanding and support.

Disabled people often have more to gain from internet use than able-bodied people.  For some the internet may become a way to be a full member of the community again.  Disabled people particularly the homebound, can be the most enthusiastic users of the Internet.  As one man in his 40's said to me; "I've lived for years in a prison with my parents as the gatekeepers, but I now have a life of my own online."

In the same way www linkactivists for many causes are active on the Internet.  10 Years ago Jay Hanson was fighting a lone battle to bring to the world awareness of the coming oil crisis.  We now think of this as "peak oil" and it's common knowledge.

From 1996, www linkJay Hanson, who called his web-site www link"Die Off", spent hundreds of hours collecting the data and patiently educating people.  He led an important public education campaign, but at great personal cost.  There are may people right now doing similar things on the internet.  Some of them are crackpots, yes.  But some of them are preparing the future and are documenting the way for us.

Creativity is a process of connecting the disconnected, of making meaning where there was previously no meaning.  Turning data into information is also a creative process.  People who understand that are likely to have their own data, their own information, and their own stories.  They are in a much stronger position to play an active and full role in this communications environment. Up

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