The internet is transforming our world. The way we make and maintain relationships, hear news of what’s going on in the world, buy and sell things, have new experiences, travel, learn, are entertained, manage our finances, become victims of crime . . . the list is endless. It probably represents the most comprehensive technological change humanity has ever experienced. How are we supposed to understand, let alone respond to the personal impact this transformation has on us?
Every significant technological development in history has resulted in social and political change, sometimes revolutionary change. The ability to use iron for tools and weapons, for example, or the development of the printing press, or the construction of railways, or the widespread use of contraception. Rarely, however, has the significance been immediately apparent, and with the internet, the social and political impact is still very unclear.
The internet is also changing our sense of personal identity. We define ourselves, among other things, by the relationships that are important for us, the places where we live and work, and the way we understand the world around us and our place in it. These building blocks suddenly look very different.
There is a natural tendency to deny the personal impact of technological change, and to protest that while the internet may change the way I do things, it cannot change who I am and what is important to me. History tells us something different. Consider, for example, the development of printing.
The printing press enabled the wide and rapid dissemination of ideas and information as never before. It played a crucial role in revolutionizing religion, science and politics in early modern Europe. Ordinary people, not just the privileged few with access to hand-written documents, were no longer limited to what they were told. They could read what others, who they could never hear personally, were saying. Collective action could be organized more easily and pamphlets and books became dangerous to those in power. Education and the broadcasting of news were transformed. This was not just a technical matter – in time, everyone’s experience of life was profoundly influenced by the invention of printing. How much more, then, the internet?
The internet is changing the way we live our lives in bewildering and comprehensive ways. Take Satnav. An amazingly helpful aid for finding our way. But it is far more than just a tool to aid efficient travel. As maps, road numbers and sign-posts become increasingly redundant, our sense that we live in a geographical world – to be people of place – also becomes less significant. No longer does it matter how different places relate to each other geographically, or where we are in relation to those places, only that we are progressing from a to b. Where a and b actually are is unimportant. It is a significant shift in our perception of ourselves as material bodies in a material world.
Or take the way we relate to public personalities like TV celebrities, political leaders, performers, sportsmen and sportswomen. Before the internet, with its attendant plethora of social media, there was an inevitable distance between these people and those who followed them. Television, newspapers and magazines did bring them into our homes, but for the most part they were still remote figures and inaccessible. Now there is an immediacy and even intimacy in such relationships, as tweets are posted and images shared on personal devices. Millions of fans engage directly with their chosen celebrities, and their impact is powerful and global. What they say or wear, the things they do and the homes they live in change the way millions of others think and feel about themselves.
The internet is here to stay, driving globalization, changing our cities and our ways of life in profound and lasting ways. It is also changing us, with the result of raised levels of anxiety and a loss of confidence. The ground is shifting beneath our feet.
Amid this loss and confusion, values that transcend all change need to be recognized and affirmed. Personal integrity, kindness, treating others fairly and the equal value of every person are reliable foundation stones for private and public life, whatever the future holds. Ultimately, such values command our allegiance because their origin lies beyond us. They are especially important for the technological revolution we are now living through.
Peter Shepherd (August 2017)