The benefits of the Internet seem self evident:
- it provides easy access to a massive amount of information. Like an enormous library that is open 24 hours a day and is available where ever there is an internet connection.
- It makes communication easy via free email. It is now cheap and simple to stay in contact with friends and family no matter where they are in the world.
- Shopping has been revolutionised. You can choose from any number of suppliers and get the cheapest price and the goods are delivered to you. It has made supermarket food deliveries possible. Books can be bought online with ease and be delivered to you door or even supplied as an ebook.
All of these points take an existing thing and make it easier and cheaper for use to do it but what is more interesting is the ways in which society is changing due to the internet.
The internet so often cuts out the middleman from tradition transactions. We have seen this most strongly recently with Wikileaks. Ten years ago an individual with sensitive information would find it very difficult to release it to the public. They would have to risk a great deal to cultivate a relationship with a journalist and hope that the journalist was willing or even allowed to print it. The media is heavily controlled from the top and publications have strong political and moral leanings that effect their content. There is also only so much of an impact that one publication in one country can make. If the news isn’t picked up by others then it is quickly forgotten about when the next thing comes along.
The internet made Wikileaks possible. It provides a platform for them to communicate. Email and a website have allowed Wikileaks to promote themselves so that people know who to send things through and also provided a platform to publish the information they have received. As we’ve seen with the attacks on the Wikileaks site that alone wasn’t enough. The international nature of the internet and its cheapness to use meant that the information could be easily distributed across many sites thus making it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
The internet cut out the middleman for Wikileaks. They could provide information directly to ordinary people without being stopped or censored by the mainstream media and/or governments. The media were involved and did publish stories but they we only part of a web of information. No single outlet had an exclusive and everyone was free to check their information against the data online.
Politically we’ve seen the internet remove the middleman a lot lately. From China to Iran, from Burma to Tunisia we are seeing people circumvent the controls put on the flow of information by using the internet. It has enabled ordinary people to tell their story to ordinary people in other countries. Without the involvement of government diplomacy and media sensationalism people are finding common ground with those from far away. Their plight has driven people to act or demand action from those in charge.
The general populace is now more aware of global affairs due to this free flow of raw uncensored information. Governments are now finding it hard to cover up their dirty little secrets due to the eyes of the world being upon them. Accountability like this may counter corruption in a way that no previous methods could.
As we’ve seen with the Wikileaks saga nothing is clear cut. Opinions are divided as to whether the cable releases were right or wrong and whether or not anyone was put in unnecessary danger by the revelations. What we can say, however, is that there is no going back. Society is changing as a direct result of our ready access to information. It is now in the hands of all of us and we’ll have to see what we decide to do with it.