Back in 1995, when the Internet was a new thing that few people understood and even fewer people actually used, the respected scientist Clifford Stoll published a book called “Silicon Snake Oil”, and an accompanying article in Newsweek, where he doubted the lasting influence of the Internet on our society. 22 years later, I learned about this anecdote from the Internet, proving just how off Clifford Stoll was in his predictions.
The younger generation, such as my daughters, don’t really remember what life was like without the Internet. But I remember just how game-changing this technology was, and how amazing it seemed when I first came across it around the same time that Stoll was dismissing it as a “passing fad”. Nowadays, it’s more unusual for somebody to not be online. We can’t deny how this technology has changed every aspect of our lives, going far beyond the sketchy chatrooms of 20 years ago. But, according to the pioneering British entrepreneur Baroness Lane-Fox, the Internet is currently going through a “midlife crisis”. And for all the good and amazing things that the Internet has to offer, it’s got a dark side to it.
The “tech entrepreneur dream” is to start a company or offer a product that totally revolutionizes the digital game, then get bought out by a bigger company such as Google or Apple for billions of dollars. Lane-Fox herself did something similar; she co-founded the travel booking site Lastminute.com in 1998, and seven years later went on to sell the firm for nearly $780 million. It goes without saying that this will, over time, lead to monopolies. A handful of companies, such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, already control a staggering percentage of our Internet experience.
Arguably one of the furthest-reaching aspects of the modern Internet is the popularity of social media. This has a positive side; it allows people who may never know of each others’ existence to connect and communicate over any distance and in ways that would have been unfathomable 30 years ago. But it’s also got a dark side: cyberbullying is an increasing problem for younger generations, and many terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, have been using social media to spread their messages of hate and recruit new followers to a terrifying degree.
In response to this darker side of the Internet, Lane-Fox has argued that there needs to be a charter of Internet good practices, similar to the Geneva Convention. Such an agreed-upon set of principles, she allows, will benefit both the big companies and the consumers who use their products. The thought of a regulated Internet is one that probably terrifies the Silicon Valley Libertarians who first created this technology, but at the same time the times have changed with this technology.