The human race has failed us. We had a moment of glory when we gave birth to the grand idea of the Internet*. This changed the world in the most significant ways, and for a while there, it felt like it was the greatest gift we could have given ourselves.
I remember a slice of time back in 1999 or so, before my mom’s cancer came along. I was visiting for the day, or maybe the weekend. The way I remember it, I was sitting on the bed in the guest room. Mom sat a foot or so away at the makeshift computer desk we’d set up for her there. I was there to help her get on the Internet – via those AOL cds that made great coasters – and show her how to communicate via email. If you’ve never seen someone’s first experience with the Internet (from back in the day), when it was all shiny and new – and never watched the excitement burst forth the first time they heard the words “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!”, well, I’m sorry, but you really missed out on a true experience.
Mom was practically giddy while she nervously explored the world beyond that had arrived at her fingertips. She couldn’t type, but she pecked at the keyboard with trepidation. She was scared of breaking her computer and possibly breaking the entire Internet if she did something wrong.
I didn’t get the chance to have too many more moments watching her absorb knowledge like that again. But that brief moment is seared in my memory, and it solidified my excitement and belief that the Internet was going to change the world in so many positive ways.
- People would break outside the boundaries of their very small local world to see new things, meet new people, and broaden their horizons.
- People would have access to all the world’s knowledge. Information was just a click away. Nothing would hinder our ability to acquire the answer to any question we might ever have.
And that belief that I had in this amazing new thing held true for a couple of decades, though I could see the fraying at the edges a few years ago.
The Internet was never perfect. Even in the early days of AOL, people were already finding ways to use it for their nefarious purposes. Scams wait for no one, apparently. And the socializing and fun to be had in forums and groups were tempered by trolls and troublemakers, even way back then.
But on the whole, the Internet was a new form of Wild West, where exploration and adventure was there for the taking. It was fun and exciting and it felt like this enormous chasm of potential and hope. Sure, like the Wild West, there might be some danger or obstacles here and there, but the promise of a better life and a more intelligent future was an irresistable siren song.
I’ve said many times that the Internet made so many wonderful things possible for so many people. It’s been not only life-changing but universe-changing. But now I can’t help but wonder…
Will the Internet be the downfall of the human race, after all?
It seems increasingly clear that humans are so inherently flawed that we cannot manage to create goodness without destroying it and everything it touches.
The very pool of information that I thought would save us has been poisoned with so much misinformation that the information we consume from it is as likely to kill us as it is to save us.
The lies and hatred that were once confined to small groups of people are now amplified and spread like a deadly mold or an unchecked new virus.
Remember when conspiracy theorists were just crazy whackos that people laughed at? Yeah, those days are gone. The Internet has enabled those whackos to thrive and mulitply.
It is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction now. Even when presented with hard facts, a conspiracy nut will simply say that the facts are just another manipulation by those who control everyone and everything. That problem of being able to prove anything to the handful of nuts out there in the past didn’t matter so much, but with the misinformation epidemic we find ourselves in now, it matters a great deal.
As much as I love the Internet – and I do still love it – I also see myself learning to hate it as well. That depresses me. I’m fighting against being consumed by depression as I look out at the world today. The hopes and dreams I once had for the world that I believed the Internet would help foster is a mostly distant memory now. The trust I had has been shattered.
This is why we can’t have nice things. Humans will find a way to abuse hope and trust and goodness in the name of whatever they themselves might deem holy – whether that is greed, selfishness, or in many cases, fear. There are those that prey on that greed, that selfishness, and most especially, on that fear.
Charlatans and narcissists have preyed upon people’s fears since the dawn of history, I would imagine. Snake oil salesmen and power-hungry, controlling narcissists didn’t emerge with the birth of the Internet, after all. They’ve been here all along, but it’s the Internet that has given them the enormous and instant reach across all of humanity. In essence, we gave unbridled power to the power abusers.
I work with and for an Internet company whose entire reason for existence is to “democratize publishing,” which is a very noble cause. I’m a WordPress enthusiast because of its mission to give voice to everyone. To enable everyone to be heard. I still believe in the vital importance of that. Without a voice, the underrepresented and the abused will never feel the freedom that we all should have. Every person, from the most represented to the least, deserves an equal chance to be heard.
I worry, though, that even with equal access, those with bad intentions – no matter how small a minority they may be – will tromp on those with good intentions and destroy everything within their path.
That old saying, “Bad news travels fast,” sums it up nicely. The bad will always be amplified and spread. The good sits quietly in a corner and is either overlooked, ignored, or spat upon.
I mourn the hope that has died within me. I fight the depression that threatens to envelop me. I cling to the once strongly held beliefs that we could evolve and shed the old hates by embracing knowledge we lacked access to, as tightly as I would to a life ring in the tumultuous ocean waves. I hold on because letting go would be my own failure. And the collective failures have been destructive enough. I dare not add my own to the pile. We must fix this, though it seems impossible.
*I purposely capitalized the word “Internet” throughout this post, even though I wouldn’t normally do so. I do that because, for the first decade or so, that was the only proper way to type it. It was considered a proper noun and, thus, a thing to be capitalized. It no longer is, and maybe that change reflects the bigger changes it’s gone through over time. In any case, the Internet of the past was capitalized, so I did so here as well.