What is 50 years spent on the internet worth to humanity?

Every new permutation of innovation is just one more step on a path started by the earliest humans to express and extend ourselves, to connect with others, to see and be seen.
Image: ENIAC supercomputer
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gladeon M. Barnes, Dr. John G. Brainerd, and Dr. John W. Mauchly observe the function table of the ENIAC supercomputer on Feb. 9, 1946.AP
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By Mary Chayko, professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information

Lost sometimes in our debates over the impact of the internet is the observation that it really represents just another step in the process of communicating across time and space. Communication technologies have provided access to the thoughts and feelings of others across millennia and great distances, from cave drawings, etchings and writing to the mass production of these technologies through printing presses, photography, computer and smartphones. Such technologies, old and new, facilitate and mediate social connectedness, stretching across the globe and back to the beginning of recorded history.

Lost, sometimes, in our debates over the impact of the internet, is the observation that it really represents just another step in the process of communicating across time and space.

I find this a comforting and instructive thing to think about as we examine the meaning of 50 years spent on the internet. It can be startling to realize that in the span of five decades, we have become widely dependent on internet-enabled modes of communication and information dissemination. But personally, I am comforted by the thought that every new permutation of technological innovation is just one more step on a path started by the earliest humans, a path representing ancient — even primal — desires to express and extend ourselves, to connect with others, to see and be seen.

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Of course, the implications of our current and unprecedented level of social connection, expression and visibility can be anything but comforting. Internet and digital technology allow everything they touch to be surveilled and monetized — not only when we are on our computers or smartphones but when we are (perhaps unknowingly) in the vicinity of an errant sensor or facial recognition system. We are nearly always subject to surveillance in the modern internet age; we pay for the technology not only with money but with our constantly tracked data and visibility. Digital technologies enable the co-mingling of the private and the public, or, perhaps more precisely, the co-mingling of the online and the offline, such that their enmeshment is almost complete. It is our physical bodies and brains that go online, of course, yet to be in a physical space is to be potentially, and often actually, digitized.

In my research as a sociologist of communication technology at Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information, I ask many people about their experiences of being on the internet: how they use it, how it fits into their lives, how it feels to be online. One of the most consistent themes in the 200-plus interviews I have conducted is that being constantly available to others results in contradictory impulses and feelings. The internet is a portal to the universe; all the best and the worst of humanity spills forth when we go online. “The plus side is that I am always available, and that is the downside too,” as one person told me.

On the one hand, this constant availability allows us to reach out to those in our social networks anytime and anywhere. We plan and coordinate activities with others online (including, increasingly, those that will take place face-to-face), we access the most current news, sports, weather and celebrity gossip. We even fall in love. On the other hand, it is not always pleasant or safe to inhabit these spaces — especially if you happen to be a woman, person of color, or otherwise socially marginalized. And being constantly plugged in — figuratively but also literally — can overwhelm the senses.

New and emerging internet-based applications and technologies promise to blur distinctions between private and public, and online and offline, even further. Continuous waves of technological innovation privilege those with the ability and literacy to access and use the technology. The internet age has created a new echelon of elites, one based upon technological sophistication, which, of course, correlates with money, power and social status.

Technological “have-nots” can neither fully participate nor fairly compete in a marketplace premised on tech-based skills and knowledge. And in the future, it will become more and more difficult for people without access to emerging technologies (and the ability to continually update one’s technology and skills) to become fully integrated into a digital society.

The exploitation of the powerless is a real and related concern. Face-to-face accountability provides a check on certain types of exploitation, which can become quite dangerous online. There have been sharp increases in bullying, harassment, fraud, information theft and other internet-amplified crimes in the last 50 years. Individuals and organizations are often vulnerable, unable or uncertain how to cope. Governments and other social institutions, tasked with the protection of citizens, often fail them.

The exploitation of the powerless is a real and related concern. Face-to-face accountability provides a check on certain types of exploitation, which can become quite dangerous online.

It is easy to forget about these risks and dangers when becoming digitally immersed, though. In my research, people would often tell me that they knew, intellectually, of these dangers, but would often forget about them as they became “swept along” in what they often referred to as the “rush” of intimacy and emotionality that can easily accompany online activity.

Creating online connections, spaces, and whole social worlds with others — especially those who are (or seem to be) like-minded, supportive, and caring — can be a heady, emotional experience. The same is true when we form close connections offline. Intimacy and emotionality, for all their virtues, can enhance our vulnerabilities and cloud our better judgment, online and off. Still, persistently, pervasively, and increasingly, we use internet-based and other digital technologies to open up and expand our social worlds.

As the internet turns 50, it is an excellent time to look backward and forward. Internet-based technologies have become firmly entrenched in, and in many ways defining of, our lives and societies. But definitions can always be revised. We can use this moment, collectively, to decide and define what the internet is and will be, and how we will meet the challenges it introduces — what it has meant to us, and what it will mean in the future.