The internet is still young. The World Wide Web was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist. Historically, technological discoveries and inventions have taken at least 50 years to mature. There is no doubt in my mind that the internet will change appreciably in the next 24 years, and probably continue to change after that because of its complexity in content and in the things it is trying to achieve. And it should.
Most of us can remember the hopes that the internet would interconnect the world—a free and rapid means of communication for people of all countries, cultures, and values. It is doing some of that. But it also can bbe used to strengthen isolated tribes of people who would like everyone to think as they do. Rebel groups in many countries have used the internet to coordinate and fund their efforts. If we share their interest, we think that is good. If their interests are opposed to ours, we think it is bad.
There was a good summary of this situation in a column written by Frank Bruni and entitled How Facebook Warps Our World in the Sunday May 22 Opinion Section of the New York Times. It is here. He speaks of the ease of increasingly interacting with people with the same values, interests, and biases that we have, and in the process becoming isolated from people of different values, thus reinforcing our own. He worries that we will turn into narrow frustrated groups unwilling to accept or even try to understand the values of others. He does not blame Facebook or other social networking services. He blames us and our need to be part of a group that reinforces our beliefs — our tribe. Networking services simplify this process for us.
This can be seen building in the present Presidential election. At this point I know people who abhor Donald Trump, and others who abhor Hillary Clinton. In fact I know people who abhor both of them. None of these people have met either. They are operating on a bit of staged video and probably biased media and reinforced by their “friends”, both personal and incrfeasingly cyber. Finally there seem to be more moderate voices. I just read an article in The Atlantic Magazine entitled The Mind of Donald Trump written by Dan P. McAdams, a Professor of Psychology and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. It is definitely not a pro-Trump article, but he does go into characteristics of Trump that would help him as a president as well as those that would not. But it is a well researched 13 page article by an expert in a high quality magazine. It would probably not be read by many on the internet, and would certainly not fit into a tweet. It is here if you are interested.
I have for a long time been interested in and studied war, since although few people speak favorably about it, and it doesn’t seem to have much long term effect, it seems to have pretty much always been with us since we became numerous enough to disagree in reasonably large groups. But traditionally, wars have been about such tangible things as land, treasure, and I suppose women. But now we are disagreeing strongly on such things as economics, religious beliefs, the value of human labor, education, and the rules of warfare itself.
And partly, thanks to the internet and modern media, groups taking different sides in these disagreements are spread widely. The ancient feud between Moslems and Christians, and even different branches of Islam are already established in different areas. Ethnic and racial battles are occurring, and arguments about race and gender are becoming more widespread. Traditionally enemies in war have either been adjacent to each other (the U.S. Civil War, England and France, Japan and China), and/or members of an established cultures who had access to sophisticated methods of transport (the U.S. and Japan during World War II). But now people who strongly disagree seem to more and more be geographically spread. The terrorist situation is perhaps an example.
Hopefully technology and societies will go in a direction that promotes conversation, cultural breadth, and world-wide understanding, rather than isolated nations or groups feeling that they are under attack and must respond, but I would not bet either way. We are already using drones to kill people overseas who lead causes we disapprove of— often causes who are using the internet to communicate and unite their bands. Will we import such behavior? Maybe the future use of drones will include not only delivering packages, but attacking groups of fellow citizens united by the internet involved in causes with which we do not agree.