Just when I thought I had one concept identified as the last of my three Internet issues for 2012, more popped in, so I will find a way to thread through an idea or three:
- "Governance failure in a hyper-connected world." http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/opinion/the-failure-of-governance-in-a-hyperconnected-world.html
- "If the technological world-changer that we call the Internet has substantially affected how the peoples of the world do, or do not, enjoy such human rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then access to the Internet must itself be a right for these people."http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/opinion/a-right-to-the-internet.html
“Google has been so dominant in its usefulness,” he said. “Now they want to make you feel something about search, as opposed to just relying on it as a useful tool.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/technology/google-hones-its-advertising-message-playing-to-emotions.html?emc=eta1
International governance, human rights and emotions are interlocking themes right up my alley as a historian, lawyer and plain old person, but how to make sense of them together is the task at hand. The first article points to the global needs and their relationship to the inchoate power of the Internet to address ... or not, or even worse. The second is a response to Vint Cerf's Op-Ed in which the Internet Father and Google Evangelist tried to make the point that technology is only ever the tool, and the tool should not equate a legal right. Still, the reply is apt because if the tool is critical to the expression of that right, then there is a immutable link. Finally, what to make of those Google engineers going soft on us? Is it just money and influence that they want, or have they had a conversion experience?
Maybe there is not much new under the sun in any of these pieces but the whole may be greater than the parts. Technologically we do live in a world connected in hitherto unprecedented ways, without the means of knowing what value connectivity has to economic, political or cultural need on a global scale. And if connectivity -- and the ability to afford it, use it effectively and intelligently -- is the sine qua non of affective participation in a global society, then it should become the equivalent of a right; if the distinction is, as the author of the letter to the editor stated, one without a difference but still rankles those who have fought so hard for legal rights, then rename it an assumption that is provided automatically by any and all responsible governments to the people whom they govern. Without stretching the point, governance and rights and technology have a built-in interrelatedness, which, in view of the whole picture of humanity properly brings us to emotions.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud famously wrote of the double-edged sword (back in the day I would have said, "dialectic") of modernity, and technology specifically. In a paraphrase, he said that technology was great in offering him the pleasure of hearing his son's voice on a trans-Atlantic call, but not in providing the boy with steady means by which to be so far from home. (Many a parent might say the same when their son or daughter goes off to college. :-)
Technology may have a power that supersedes government (as is often remarked about the Internet among political dissidents) or, in the extreme, over human life itself (as has long been the fear of a nuclear holocaust), but, in the main, technology is not only best understood in historical context but in a more perfect world managed from the perspective of ethics. If all the Internet amounts to is a grand adolescent bash among technologists, then we, citizens, have done too little to exercise governance. And if we exercise governance without respect for human emotion, which registers need and want in one meaningful expression better than can be stated by an army of sociologists, then we have not only proved the Enlightenment experiment in its pursuit of rationalism insufficient, but any and all governance that gets too much of kick out of itself and not the people who rely on it unworthy of the power and respect we otherwise are bidden to give it. In short, it is all of a piece. This year our key to human progress is to think of the Internet as offering nothing less than all of this.