Chapter 21. The Internet: Reflections on Our Present Discontents
There are not many happy campers on the Internet these days or, at least, not many idealistic happy campers. Malicious worms and viruses, an ever-rising tide of spam, commercialism in its crassest forms, lawsuits over Internet filters in libraries, nagging questions about privacy in the face of governmental and corporate surveillance, the apparent success of gambling, pornography, and every scam imaginable, monopolistic software of poor quality, the ubiquitous frustrations of employees dealing with crotchety tools they have no hope of understanding, nasty battles over copyright none of this is calculated to make one feel warmly about the online experience.
I generally try to avoid carping about the more obvious dysfunctions of the digital society. For one thing, because the dysfunctions are obvious, they draw plenty of attention from others. For another, I have a basic faith that any given dysfunction will sooner or later yield to human ingenuity. Most importantly, my concern has always been with the effects of technology when it does exactly what we want it to, without seeming to bite back. This apparent harmony conceals the deeper danger, which results from too passive a willingness to adapt ourselves to the machinery around us.
Moreover, the glitches, vexations, and more obvious failures of technology even have a certain virtue: they can jolt us out of our mesmerized, lockstep conformity to the machinery around us and into remembrance of ourselves as distinct from the machinery.
But it does seem to me, as I deal with the day's hundred spam messages and read about legislation designed, futilely, to curb Internet gambling or prevent various Net-based abuses of children, that our present discontents reflect far more than inconvenient glitches in the grand march toward an Internet society. We're going to need more than a little technical ingenuity. That's because we're up against some fundamental and recalcitrant problems for which there simply may be no reasonable answers at least, no answers consistent with our inflated expectations for a life of technology-assisted ease.