Many happy returns? The internet is now 25 years old
As the internet celebrates its 25th birthday, Paul Hopkins finds that there's a darker side to the world wide web transformation
Back in 1995, Newsweek magazine shared with its readers its considered wisdom about the internet. "The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way a government works," wrote Clifford Stoll in a piece that has, ironically, been preserved online for posterity.
"How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc," Stoll wrote. "Yet, Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the internet. Uh, sure."
Yet 17 years later, Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.
Notwithstanding the impact the internet has had on newspapers worldwide as tactile commodities, on the 25th anniversary this week of the internet becoming publicly available, it is very easy to laugh at spectacularly wrong predictions, like Newsweek's.
Today, we use the web to find jobs and homes, shop for clothes, diagnose our illnesses, make friends, fall in love, or break up and tell strangers that their opinions on Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn are wrong. The web is now so pivotal to modern life that the UN has declared access to it a basic human right.
We may well wonder how we once managed without the world of www. Instant mail, instant news, instant video, or music streaming, instant bank account details, not to mention the whole connected, smaller-world thingy of social media, or the increasing role the internet is playing in education. And, then, there's the plethora of gadgetry that goes hand-in-sync with the internet - iThis and iTheOther. For all the good and positive things we can embrace about our technology, the all-pervasiveness of its connectivity, amid all those clouds on which we now store our lives there is a dark, brooding side to the internet.
For me, one of the things that makes it harder and harder to connect with our innate wisdom as humans is our increasing dependence on this smart technology. We have a pathological relationship with devices, even to the point of feeling trapped. We are finding it harder and harder to unplug and renew ourselves.
You know the feeling - can't stop checking your emails, Facebook, Twitter and so on - and how often is such social media used to spit venom at others, the physically and sexually different, the differing thoughts and religious beliefs of others?
Professor Mark Williams, at Oxford University, sums up the damage we're doing to ourselves: "What we know from neuroscience - from looking at the brain-scans of people always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realising what they're doing - is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on high alert all the time. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries."
Or, for that matter, fears and prejudices. In the online world, there is an abundance of sexual imagery, implied or otherwise, everywhere you care to look.
And that's without mention of the Dark Net, that embedded, hidden portal that can get you anything from guns to drugs to child pornography delivered to your laptop quicker than you can order a takeaway pizza.
The mere fact our children having access to your standard everyday internet is a worry for many parents. The UK Office of the Children's Commissioner reports that bullying and sexist attitudes among 12 and 13-year-olds have reached a worrying level and among some young boys "rape is seen as normal and inevitable".
A lot of what is seen as sexually "normal" by young people is being gleaned from the internet, cites a two-year inquiry showing the "sheer levels and appalling reality of sadism" uncovered.
I am not with the censorious among us, but I do think the freedom that the internet brings comes with a price - responsibility - and that, unless we act with responsibility towards what we allow our children access to, they may well pay the price in adult life.
Childline reports that children as young as 11 are becoming addicted to internet porn, giving them "unrealistic expectations" of sex. It is encouraging boys to grow up viewing girls merely as sex objects.
The Belfast Telegraph reported on Thursday that an internet pornography expert has offered to deliver classes to Northern Ireland children on the dangers of addiction to sexually explicit material.
Lawyer Mary Sharpe made the headlines after it emerged that Tony Blair's former school - Fettes College in Edinburgh, one of the UK's most exclusive public schools - will provide "porn-awareness" classes amid fears over the negative effects sexually explicit material can have on pupils.
"Research shows that the average age kids start looking at naked pictures and the like is aged 10," Ms Sharpe said.
DUP MLA Nelson McCausland welcomed the move to make the classes available to local children, saying it was "right that young people should be educated about the dangers of pornography".
A single sentence, a single tweet, a single online comment - that is all it takes for a young, innocent teen to become so helpless that they take their own life.
I recall writing about Donegal girl Erin Gallagher, just 13 when she was found dead in her home one Saturday in 2012, just 24 hours after telling online bullies she would kill herself.
The island of Ireland has the fourth-highest rate of teen suicide in Europe - after Lithuania, Finland and Estonia - and it is rising. In Northern Ireland, police investigate five crimes every day involving the use of Facebook or Twitter, this newspaper has reported.
Threats, sectarian abuse and offensive comments are among dozens of incidents reported to the PSNI each week, underlining the growing menace posed by cyberbullies.
It is children like Erin - children for they are too young to have the wherewithal to deal with their tormentors - who ultimately pay an ultimate price.
Yet, as a society we seem incapable of, ignorant of, how to deal with this life-destroying horror.
Just like roads can kill and water poison - basic "rights" as cited by the UN along with the internet - the internet can spew up a small but insidious number of people who have coated the web with this dark side: privacy invasion, intolerance, self-harm tuition and bullying.
In allowing ourselves the freedom that the internet offers, we must, if we aspire to civilised behaviour, accept that with such freedom comes responsibility. But we have yet to determine how we exercise that responsibility.
Cybercrime is another downside to the internet. Former Justice Minister David Ford, speaking last summer at the sixth World Cyber Security Summit, hosted annually by Queen's University, said: "As chair of the Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF), I am very much aware that a growing concern for both businesses and individuals has been the rise in cybercrime.
"For the PSNI, National Crime Agency and other law-enforcement agencies, cyber (crime) has become a significant and ever-growing priority area. The approaches from online criminals have, unfortunately, become more sophisticated and we need to respond to this."
Terrorists increasingly are using the internet as a means of communication both with each other and the rest of the world. Almost everyone has seen at least some images from propaganda videos published online by Isis and its ilk and rebroadcast on the world's news networks.
Western governments have intensified surveillance of such sites, but their prosecution of site operators is hampered by concerns over civil liberties, the internet's inherent anonymity and other factors.
According to Haifa University's Gabriel Weimann, whose research on the subject is widely cited, the number of terrorist sites increased exponentially in the last decade - from fewer than 100 to a staggering 4,800 in just three years. The numbers can be somewhat misleading, however.
Pentagon analysts, testifying before Congress, have said that they monitor some 5,000 jihadi websites, though they closely watch a small number of these - fewer than 100 - that are deemed the most hostile.
Facebook and Google only this week gave reassurances that they are on top of things to weed out the bad and the ugly from their portals. But, as we are so sadly aware, all it takes is a lone lunatic to be spurred on by a psychotic online rant and rhetoric to create unannounced death and mayhem.
A heavy price to pay for civil liberties and online freedom.
The rumour mill that keeps on giving
Whether email exchanges between Paddy Hickey and others decide the Irish Olympics chief’s guilt, or otherwise, he is not alone in the internet potentially being the undoing of him.
- Hillary Clinton just cannot shake off her paperless trail. In March 2015, it became publicly known that Clinton — during her tenure as US Secretary of State — had exclusively used her family’s private email server for official communications, rather than official State Department email accounts maintained on federal servers. Those official communications included thousands of emails that would later be marked ‘classified’ by the State Department. Clinton has said that her use of personal email was in compliance with federal laws and State Department regulations and that former secretaries of state had also maintained personal email accounts. Is it possible that Mrs Clinton was not “technically sophisticated” enough to understand what the classified markings meant? Possible, but unlikely. On July 6, the US Attorney General announced that no charges would be filed. The next day the State Department reopened its investigation into the email controversy and it is not going away anytime soon.
- Kim Kardashian may like to think she has put the scandal involving herself, a former boyfriend and a sex tape behind her, as the reality TV celeb moved quickly on Thursday to deny she is the woman featured in a nude photograph which has hit a number of websites. “It’s not her. You can totally tell. It looks nothing like her,” her spokesman told waiting paparazzi as he accompanied the star to a lunch date in Manhattan. The disputed photograph, which shows a naked dark haired woman frying eggs, was first featured on blog TheDirty.com, before making its way onto website Media Takeout. But Kim looked decidedly unruffled by the scandal as she strolled through uptown New York — as befits a woman a photograph of whose derriere on the cover of Paper magazine in November 2014 reputedly nearly “broke” the internet.
- It’s hard to keep track of the sexual abuse allegations swirling around Bill Cosby, with fresh ones popping up seemingly every day and an unusual mix of decades-old accusations and brand new claims all getting a very public hearing in the media. All in all, 16 women have publicly accused Cosby of sexual abuse. Taken together, the accusations span the length of his long career in the public eye as a beloved actor and comedian, from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s. They were given new light in 2014 by a comedian’s stand-up routine that caught fire on social media, and new accusers coming forward has led to a drip-drip effect of even more coming forward.
- Getting connected to a brave new world that can change everything
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the internet and be able to identify themselves to other devices, in a new world that, it is said, could be worth $19 trillion.
It’s going to produce some crazy, cool items that generally will make life easier. Many of these advantages are already available but they’re stymied by not knowing where you are and anticipating your needs.
Being connected to the internet will help these “things” understand what is required and what you will be able to do, such as:
- Greater automation and power efficiency of your household like cooking, cleaning and having lights on when you arrive home;
- Help with your driving, or even take over if you’re not coping, or just tired. The sat nav we’ve got these days is only the tip of the iceberg;
- n Will increase the number of tasks a person with disability, or age-related disability, can do.
The downside to such a Tomorrow’s World requires that we purchase new things and that we be connected to the internet always.
Such a world will require that you be tech-savvy (to a certain extent).
Already IT sales requires the buyer to be tech-savvy — the problem being that, despite saying otherwise, many are not as tech-savvy as they think.
And, how fast will that “thing” become obsolete which then requires us to by a new “thing”?
Planned obsolescence is standard in today’s gizmos. The downright ugly side is — hackers. They have always been, are, and will be one step ahead of security. Please use your imagination: if someone hacked into your security, or your car, or if they raid your fridge.
All of these advances are unlike any technological revolution since the printing press and antibiotics.
Today, you could conceivably live without a car, a microwave, TV, or radio, telephone, even a fridge or washing machine.
Without these, life would be significantly different (maybe harder), but essentially you could
still have a decent quality of life.
Soon, though, if you decide not to be connected through a digital device, or “thing”, you will be a second-class citizen.