The Internet is truly vast. Born among a small group of technicians and academics in the late 1960s, the World Wide Web[i] today connects 40% of the world’s population. In this short span, the relentless march of technology has reduced the costs of access and connectivity, and the Internet has played an increasingly important role in all aspects of human interactions. It is now central to global networks of inter alia capital, goods, services and communication (Castells, 2005).[ii] In Part I of our series on Disruption, we looked at the Internet’s role in unleashing a new wave of economic disruption one where participants leverage the lack of regulatory frameworks to reshape markets and the demands for regulation that result. However, the impact of the Internet goes much beyond economics; in a global society of hyper-connected individuals, we are required to undertake renewed examinations of the meaning of political participation, alternative systems of knowledge and cultural exchange, evolving human relationships, and even the nature of national sovereignty. In this article, we attempt to examine how the Internet as a space enhances the creation and dissemination of knowledge and impacts socio-political interaction.
While knowledge networks have always existed in society, prior to the Internet they were constrained by a lack of resources. However, as it became increasingly easy for devices to connect and contribute to co-ordinated processing, networks were no longer bound by resource constraints and quickly expanded across boundaries of time and space. Access and communication is now possible irrespective of where and when the request originates as each device is capable of participate as a node contributing to the larger whole. The decentralized structure of this network of networks has enabled the creation of (and free access to) a huge quantum of content and is one of the hallmarks of the Internet. Until recently it would have been fair to describe online activity as one unified cyberculture largely North American in makeup (be it adulation for cats and bacon, the celebration of first world problems or the range of pop-culture disseminated). However, the Internet as a space has gradually become reflective of the fact that its user base is culturally and geographically diverse. As this happens, the capacity of different cultures to have near-instantaneous exchanges has begun to fundamentally alter social interaction.
The growth of the Internet has been associated with simultaneous growth of both the digital community as well as personal autonomy. Today, websites act as platforms for enabling relationships and allow access to people, groups and virtual spaces across the world to connect with as well as to share information and ideas. Moreover, these connections are no longer limited to personal relationships but have made inroads in domains such as education, governance and social activism, health, corporate accountability, entertainment etc. For many, the ability to communicate with like-minded people and express freely is changing their lives for the better. While the study of the Internet’s impact is still nascent, research has indicated positive impacts on promoting individual autonomy, feelings of security and personal wellbeing, even reduced isolationism (especially in restrictive patriarchal societies). Such impacts have been found to be greater for individuals with lower incomes in the developing world, as well as for women. The Internet is beginning to provide historically weaker groups a chance to assert themselves.
Not even language has escaped the Internet’s impact. Today smartphones are capable of real-time translation at a conversational level. Back-end support for multi-lingual scripts is empowering non-English speaking users to participate online and democratizing cultural contribution. Even as English remains dominant, a dynamic lingua franca is emerging from the Internet’s cultural cauldron one that includes mutated English (lol and brb are often understood independent of user’s language[iii]) but is not limited to words. Emoticons enrich online language by compensating for the lack of body language and prosody while emojis (which originated in Japan but are now universal) can convey complex emotions to add nuance and depth to online conversations. The rise of Internet linguistics as a sub-domain of language studies is a testament to the Internet’s impact on language and the gradual development of a common base for ideation.
However, not all is well with the Internet’s current form. In spite of increasing diversity online, a lot of content remains hegemony of the English language with roots in the global-north. An acute lack of affordable access and local content in the developing world only deepens an existing digital divide[iv] and threatens to alienate those offline even further. For those online, there is a worry that technologically mediated relationships and the lack of face-to-face interaction might reduce the empathy that is necessary for healthy communication. Manifestations of this include cyber-bullying and online debates being hijacked by trolls attacking users solely to cause hurt. Such abuse inherits some of the worst aspects of real-world bigotry as malice becomes directed at disempowered groups. The wave of threats aimed at feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian during the infamous Gamergate controversy, the ubiquitous harassment of women online, racist discourse on social media and the deplorable spread of revenge-porn[v] is proof of how truly terrible the internet can get. Anonymity, while empowering, also enables people to exploit it for nefarious and illegal purposes. A truly telling example of this is the DarkNet network where in the underbelly of the Internet criminals offer their services for sale[vi] , child pornography is easily accessible and terrorist organizations can engage in encrypted cross-border communication hidden from governments and law enforcement agencies. Further, in a hyper-connected network, content can quickly gather critical mass and spread across nodes like a contagion and as long as it is sensational – it is attributed legitimacy. This is worrying not just for the sake of informational integrity but because of the potential for instigating social unrest.
Fears of cultural dilution, online transgressions and threats to state security have mobilized governments around the world. While communication (both across and within borders) has empowered individuals to criticize States and bypass conventional censorship, it has also been used as a tool for countries seeking to undermine each other. Governments have responded by upgrading their surveillance apparatus and cyber-warfare capabilities, censoring and blocking content with a heavy hand, and invoking legislations that limit fundamental rights to expression. The Snowden revelations have sparked widespread calls for respecting and replicating national sovereignty on the Internet, and have led to many nations digging their heels on preventing Internet governance frameworks from redistributing power away from the State. Many countries (including India) are attempting to shield themselves from external interference by demanding that data about their citizens be localized onto servers within their borders. Although the cause of national security is inarguably essential, data localization is akin to old world trade barriers, capable of undoing the benefits that can arise from the free-trade of ideas. At the same time, they give governments potentially dangerous levels of control over their country’s Internet.
In his book on the enduring nature of international conflict, Joseph Nye discusses the rise of non-state actors in the form of transnational corporations that act independent of states. Nowhere is this truer than on the Internet. As users become products, the quantum and, rate with which personal data is collected and used by private companies could cross the line between data analytics and gross breaches of individual privacy with surprising ease. Further, given that such portals are increasingly the gatekeepers of news and social interaction for the current generation, to state that the filtering process is algorithmic cannot be enough to avoid responsibility. Incidents like Facebook’s psychological experiment or Google’s tryst with the right to be forgotten highlight a potentially insidious power to shape our thoughts and opinions. That such entities be this powerful even as their goals aren’t necessarily informed by the same noble principles as national constitutions cannot augur well for the Internet’s celebrated impact on enriching and deepening socio-political debates.
For a generation that grew up with it, the Internet embodies the promise of liberty to voice opinion safely and communicate across borders. While these ideas are hardly novel, the scale and speed of the new network promises to alter the landscape of socio-political-corporate power relations altogether. It is this that motivates dissenters to attempt circumventing the Great Chinese Firewall even at great risk. It is what inspired a 21-year-old to challenge a law limiting free speech in the Supreme Court and win. The Internet as a space that empowers marginal communities must be protected. This is of great relevance given the increasingly shrinking physical spaces of deliberation and dissent today. The task of balancing the concerns of national security, stability, private interests, with digital rights and free speech is an unenviable but a crucial one.
——-Sirus Joseph Libeiro and Parnil Urdhwareshe
[i] While the internet refers to a system of networks between computers and digital machines, the World Wide Web (or www as it is commonly known) is the information sharing medium built on top of the internet.
[iii] At the same time, LOL has equivalents across languages. For example, in French LOL is often used interchangeably with MDR mort de rire i.e. died of laughter.
[iv] Digital Divide is defined as the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities (Understanding The Digital Divide, OECD, 2001).
[v] Revenge porn is sexually explicit media content that is distributed without consent of the individual involved in it.
[vi]The Dark net is an exclusive network that is used by individuals for sharing files and sensitive data, protecting identities of political dissidents and whistleblowers. However, there is also an criminal element to the activities which happen on the anonymous internet. E.g. Silk Road: a marketplace on the DarkNet was a marketplace for transactions of banned drugs. It was shut down in 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.