An enemy of the Internet?

Something that comes up repeatedly in getting information from the Internet, is how you judge whether something is authoritative.  But it’s also important to realise that people might be authoritative and influential, but might also be strongly biased towards one view or another.  One example is Andrew Keen, who has created something of a niche as an active contributor to Internet discussions, who at the same time is highly critical of the Internet.  In fact his BBC piece at comes with a disclaimer that this doesn’t reflect the BBC’s views – as you might expect given the BBC’s commitment to digital content.  I’m conscious that my views on the Internet are going to get much less exposure than Andrew Keen’s (that’s a statement of fact, not of envy or self-deprecation).  But I really find his arguments hard to accept.

He makes a reasonable point (that the Internet hasn’t led to the downfall of the nation state) and observes (as I would agree) that the Internet ‘is simultaneously authoritarian and anti-authoritarian’.  But he extends this to suggest that its effect on society is purely ephemeral, which is far from being the case at the day-to-day level.   Of course the BBC offers a kind of case study in this: 50 years ago they were broadcasting the Woodentops  on one of just two terrestrial TV channels now my children are into Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab but much more likely to watch it on-line than on television.  Internet shopping, internet booking of travel, much greater transparency of information (it’s a bit anorak-y, but i was able to find my great-grandparents’ family on the 1901 census, then put their address into and find out about the current demographics of the area, without leaving my computer), using email or instant messaging or whatever in place of phone calls, all have a profound effect on the way that we live.

And the Internet can change the fortunes of nations – I’m thinking particularly of its use in Africa and the potential for wireless services to bring connections to places which have been isolated in the past.  But also, this week marks twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, and as a thought experiment, it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened had the Internet been available when the Berlin Wall was still standing.


6 Responses to “An enemy of the Internet?”

  1. Ravi Palanisamy Says:

    Your last point about bringing connections to isolated areas resonated with me, Martin, as I’m undertaking research into the use of Elluminate in academic virtual organisations. This technology is an example of Internet’s usefulness in previously-isolated places such as areas in Africa.

  2. Ravi Palanisamy Says:

    You also can’t help feeling that this critic of the Internet should perhaps consider other means of spreading his message if he is so adverse to it!

  3. David Barry Says:

    I have no doubt that the internet, and the hardware underlying it, in particular the fibre optic cable, and packet switching is the most important innovation since printing.

    I think the analogy can be pushed to some degree, as books existed before printing. Printing sharply reduced the marginal cost of producing copie. It then became part of a whole complex of innovation. When the Times was first published it cost twice the price of a coffee in a coffee shop -that is in todays prices about 4 pounds. The development of mass advertising is some explanation as to the fall in price. And no advertising is migrating to the web…

  4. martinrich Says:


    Ha! Your point in your second response was one of my reactions as well


    I think that, as well as low cost, the really important properties of the Internet are standardisation and extensibility. Standardisation because so much of it is built around standard protocols that anybody with a standard web browser and mail package has access to a huge range of information. Extensibility because it’s possible to add all sort of other services and applications through the ability to download specialised software: Google Earth is a good example which depends on such software being downloaded.

  5. David Barry Says:

    Indeed. I was actually focusing on a single sort of application;the internet being used to support human communication. However as the “cloud” grows in importance extensibility may well lead things in unexpected directions.

  6. David Barry Says:

    In fact I have just looked up cloud computing on wikipedia, and the sheer number of different kinds of applications already available makes your point very nicely!

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