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New York Post

 

Without a Net

March 27, 2008

By Brian C. Anderson

PRINTER FRIENDLY

How the Internet Could Wipe Out Gains of the Middle Class

It's hard to imagine life without the Internet. We use it for communication and community, for information and knowledge, for fun and profit. It is transforming our politics, economics and culture in ongoing and profound ways.

Yet as the "Web 2.0" universe gets ever more networked, technology writer Nicholas Carr believes the sinister side of the revolution has emerged.

The "big shift" of Carr's title is the rapid movement of computing power from desktop to the Web itself - to the "World Wide Computer," as he rechristens it.

Thanks to the ubiquity of fiber-optics and the construction (by Google and other innovative firms) of "massive and massively efficient information-processing plants," services and products that once required the purchase and downloading of sophisticated and expensive software onto the hard-drives of PCs - everything from Microsoft Office to video games - are increasingly available via the Internet, often for free. Computing is transforming into a utility, Carr argues, just as electricity did a century ago, when firms shut down their own steam-engines and dynamos and plugged in to the new power grid, saving vast amounts of money and liberating undreamed-of possibilities in the process.

That earlier technological revolution helped build middle-class America; cheap electricity gave jobs to millions, and brought mass culture to the nation's living rooms, the car to its highways and driveways, and appliances to its kitchens. By contrast, the new revolution, Carr argues, could potentially unravel our economic achievements through the "virtualization" of millions of white-collar jobs. Who needs skilled, paid researchers when you've got Google instantaneously to search the mind of the Web or unpaid bloggers digging up what you're after and posting it? Who needs expensive IT departments if you're getting your information services and applications online?

Carr's warning is grim: "The erosion of the middle class may well accelerate, as the divide widens between a relatively small group of extraordinarily wealthy people - the digital elite - and a very large set of people who face eroding fortunes." Computerization is already "holding down the incomes of the bulk of Americans," he says, and things are only going to get worse. We may wind up hollowing out our entire economy.

The World Wide Computer's cultural effects are equally troubling, Carr maintains. Already, the record and newspaper industries struggle in an age of music downloads and free online news; other information sectors will suffer, too. The blogosphere enables citizens to bypass the good judgment of editors and read only opinions that they already agree with; hyper-partisanship, even growing fanaticism, follows. The Internet may have allowed some creative people to flourish, but most of what circulates on it is "a culture of mediocrity - many miles wide but only a fraction of an inch deep." We've got so much information flooding in that it's drowning us. And so on. Far from techno-utopia, techno-nightmare looms.

Meanwhile, Iraqi insurgents use the Google Earth mapping application to track the movement of U.S. troops, while our increasing economic reliance on the Web leaves us frighteningly vulnerable to cyber-terror. At the limit, the emancipation promised by Web enthusiasts may over time collapse into an Orwellian nightmare, as big corporations and authority-loving governments use the World Wide Computer to spy on us, manipulate our behavior and rob us of our liberties. "Computer systems are not at their core technologies of emancipation," writes Carr. "They are technologies of control."

"The Big Switch" is thought-provoking and an enjoyable read and the history of American electricity that makes up the first half of the book is riveting stuff. Further, the book broadly reinforces the point that it's always wise to distrust utopias, technological or otherwise. But its conclusions are way too gloomy.

Carr's economic futurology says little about the productivity gains that the Web is generating, and assumes, against all evidence, that those gains won't spark new investments, new innovations, new industries, new profits - and new jobs.

Carr's political pessimism is also misplaced. His argument implicitly evokes a supposed period in American history when partisanship was rare, the press delivered objective news to us every morning and mass culture was refined and professional. But are we more divided now than during the Nixon era, or even the Reagan years? How about the Founding era, when vicious insults and calumnies flew? Were we really better informed by the overwhelmingly liberal mainstream press of 15 years ago than we are today, with heavily-trafficked sites like RealClearPolitics and blogs all presenting analysis, from every imaginable political perspective? It's a tough case to make.

The Internet also continues to help crack open closed societies. China is now home to 123 million Internet users, notes social thinker Guy Sorman, with Web-savvy students playing cat-and-mouse with censors to access foreign information sites. Suppressing this extraordinary ferment may now be impossible, despite Carr's fears, even if Western firms like Yahoo! have proved too willing to kowtow to China's desire to regulate it.

Carr's worries about cyber-terror are more reasonable. It is a serious threat that we've done too little to prepare for. But even so, I'll place my bets with the free societies that have made the Internet the most important technological advance since electricity - a boon, whatever uncertainties and discontents have accompanied it.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/02032008/postopinion/postopbooks/without_a_net_500862.htm

 

 
 
 

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