While I usually write about politics, I’m also interested in technology.  And, of course, technology is political. So here are a few observations about the social and political impact of the Internet in the first twenty years of the twenty-first century.

THE INTERNET turned fifty in October.  The modern era of the Internet began in 1989 with the invention of the “world-wide web” and the first web browser.  The past twenty years has seen rapid deployment of the Internet throughout the world — although in some locations, such as central Africa, it’s difficult to read your email without a satellite phone.

The vast expansion of the Internet has impacted all aspects of our lives, from our daily personal rituals to the conduct of our businesses.  It’s been facilitated by the develpment of high-speed telecommunication networks, LTE (long-term evolution) — mostly 4G in the U.S.  And by the advent of the PDA (personal data assistant) and e-commerce (electronic commerce).

DOMESTIC INNOVATION:  It’s hard to believe, but twenty years ago, none of us sat in bed in the morning, checking our cellphones for email or text messages or Facebook posts.  The fact we can do this is due to several developments.

Ipod, Iphone, Ipad: The Ipod launched in 2001, followed by the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010.  Of course, cellphones have been used for forty years.  But the modern era, the “smart” phone, began with the delivery of the iPhone in 2007.  This was the first phone that allowed you to make voice calls, send text messages, read your email, and surf the web.

Multiple factors contributed to the ubiquity of the PDA.  Communications companies built national LTE networks.  And, beginning in 1992, there was a rapid deployment of wireless network technology — WiFi.

Of course, it’s very convenient to be able to have a full range of communications on your phone.  But there are social consequences.  Email has been around since the advent of the Internet and came into widespread use in the 70s.  That was when social observers first noted that people will say things in an email that they would not say in a text.

There’s no doubt that over the past 20 years there’s been a “coarsening” of social dialogue.  The Internet has promoted worldwide rapid communication, but it’s also made it more likely that citizens will fire off thoughtless hostile comments.

Social Networks:  In 2004 Facebook was launched at Harvard; in 2006 it became generally available.  (That same year, Twitter came out.)  Social networks are now part of the American social landscape.  (Millions of Americans wait for the next Trump tweet.)

We can debate about whether this is good or bad.  There’s no doubt that the social networks have both contributed to the coarsening of social dialogue and increased the amount of “fake news.”  (Millions of people now get their news via Facebook.)

Hacking:  With the rapid expanse in the use of the Internet there’s been a corresponding increase in computer crime of all sorts.  Most of us have had experiences with various sorts of hackers: stolen (digital) credits cards, viruses or worms…. There’s a lot of wealth on the Internet and its ubiquity has spurred a new breed of thieves.  It’s estimated that there is one hacker attack “every 39 seconds.”(https://hostingtribunal.com/blog/hacking-statistics/#gref)

BUSINESS INNOVATION:  At the same time that the rapid deployment of the Internet has facilitated personal communication,  new Internet tools have been a boon to business.

E-Commerce: 1995 saw the formation of both Amazon and eBay.  (Shortly thereafter Paypal was formed.)  These companies made it possible to purchase a wide variety of new and used goods without having to travel to a “bricks-and-mortar” store.  Soon the public’s buying habits had dramatically shifted.

Streaming: Although there were earlier music streaming services, the first significant service was iTunes in 2001.  A comparable service for videos was provided by YouTube in 2005.  Although Amazon had been selling books over the Internet since 1995, it was not until 2007 that it introduced the Kindle and the notion of the eBook — streaming books, magazines, and other documents.

In 1997 Netflix was formed to facilitate renting DVDs over the internet.  In 2010 it refocussed and began delivering DVD content as streaming media. (In 2012 it also began delivering original content.)

New forms of Service Delivery: Entrepreneurs noted that where you could deliver goods via the Internet you should also be able to deliver services.  This led to the 2008 launch of Airbnb followed by ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, and freelance labor exchanges such as Taskrabbit.

Cloud Computing:  Although the notion of “cloud computing” — the on-demand use of shared computers and data storage — had been discussed since 1996, it first became widely available via a 2006 Amazon offering.  What this means is that businesses, of various sizes, do not have to have their own dedicated computer facilities; they can purchase these resources from Amazon, or the like, as they need them.  (Nor do these business have to have other specialized facilities such as accounting, human resources, and marketing; they can also be purchased from companies such as Salesforce.)

Personalization:  As e-commerce developed, massive amounts of consumer data were collected.  This has permitted vendors, such as Amazon, to personalize offers to their customers; that led to messages such as, “based on your recent purchases, we recommend the following products…” Personalization expanded beyond e-commerce to news services that began delivering tailored messages and articles.

Microtargeting: Since 2004, U.S. political parties have used a form of personalization, “micro targeting,” to tailor political messages to specific audiences.  (In 2016, this practice included information obtained via Facebook.)

SUMMARY:  By any measure, the Internet is a gigantic resource (https://www.livescience.com/54094-how-big-is-the-internet.html)

“According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index initiative, the Internet is now in the “zettabyte era.” A zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes, or 1,000 exabytes. By the end of 2016, global Internet traffic will reach 1.1 zettabytes per year, according to Cisco, and by 2019, global traffic is expected to hit 2 zettabytes per year…. According to Cisco’s research, 8,000 petabytes per month of IP traffic was dedicated to video in 2015, compared with about 3,000 petabytes per month for Web, email and data transfer. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes or 2^50 bytes.)”

There are more than 100,000 e-commerce sites with significant revenue.

But big is not synonymous with good.  The Internet is a gigantic resource that is available — at least in rudimentary form — all over the world.  But it is not necessarily a trustworthy resource.

in 2020, Internet users do not have to be “techies;” they do not have to a deep technical understanding of how the Internet works and where Internet data comes from.  But these users do have to be skeptics because they are being bombarded with misleading information; and they do have to be wary because their privacy is under daily attack.   Sadly many Internet users are not skeptical or wary and, therefore, they are subject to manipulation on a scale not seen before.

It’s not surprising that Trump’s base — with a disproportionate number of uneducated white men — has proven easy to manipulate.  Daily, they are bombarded with Trump tweets and false news from related Internet sources.  The formation of the Trump cult is one of the unsavory side affects of the massive deployment of the internet.

Written by : Bob Burnett