Over the past centuries, technologies have regularly come along that completely change
how we connect to each other: the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone; the newspaper,
the radio, the TV.
All are technologies that begin social revolutions.
We’re living through one such revolution now. It started in 1962 with a humble, almost
boring idea: connecting computers together. Today, almost three billion people are connected.
What kind of revolution are we going through?
- Firstly, it’s fast. It took 25 years after the Guttenberg Press arrived for the first
English book to be printed. In its first twenty-five years, the telephone
reached just 10% of America.
In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population was connected. The first billion was reached
in 2005. The second billion in 2010. The third billion at the end of 2014.
The benefits of the Internet are obvious and all around us. In a European-wide poll,
people put the Internet at the top of their list of daily essentials – ahead of the
bath,the car and the television.
But the risks and dangers are less obvious and more subterranean.
There are at least four.
ONE - WE’RE ADDICTED
In the UK, two in five of us recognise we’re spending too long on the internet but admit
we can’t stop.
Three in five of us check the internet the first thing in the morning, and the last thing
at night - and put this habit ahead of interpersonal communication.
Two in five women say that one of the greatest challenges of relationships has become how
to prove more interesting than the partner’s smartphone.
Nine out of ten people would rather be surfing the web rather than reading a book.
Internet pornography has proved particularly compelling: 60% of US adult males admit to
using it at least once a month. 9% of males classify themselves as spending between 10
and 20 hours a week on porn.
We are not neurologically designed to withstand the temptations on offer online - and this
suits a great many internet companies just fine.
TWO - WE KNOW TOO MUCH AND UNDERSTAND TOO LITTLE
The amount of information at our fingertips is unimaginably large;
every single minute of the day:
Facebook users share 2.5 million pieces of content.
Twitter users Tweet 300,000 times. YouTube users upload 72 hours of video
200million emails are sent. Apple users download 50,000 apps
Between the dawn of civilization and 2003, 5 exabytes of data was created. That much
information is now created every 2 days.
There is so much data that we keep having to come up with new words to describe it.
The latest term is the yottabyte.
This much data is overwhelming and asphyxiating.
To manoeuvre, we have to rely on search engines. Google makes 2.5 billion searches per day.
But we forget that these search engines are mechanical and highly coloured in their interpretations.
For a start, they constantly direct our attention to their products, sponsors, and affiliates.
Imagine the Dewey Decimal system owned by Coca Cola.
A lot of the information is nonsense: during the riots in London in 2011, the three most
shared stories on Twitter were that the London Eye was on Fire, the Army was on the streets,
and that a tiger had escaped from London zoo.
Because the internet is often a source of reliable information, we exaggerate its accuracy,
its importance and its wisdom.
The 12th most popular question typed into Google is:
WHAT SHALL I DO WITH MY LIFE?
It doesn’t know, but at the same time, it constantly gets in the way of the conversations
you might have with the one person who does: namely, you.
THREE - PRIVACY IS UNDER THREAT
Thousands of ‘cookies’ track where we go. Our mobile phones log data about our
movements every five seconds, even when they are ostensibly off.
The head of the French police force proposed it’s now almost impossible to commit a murder
and remain undetected.
We’re constantly leaving so-called digital breadcrumbs on our online travels. Every year,
in the UK, we leave up to £5,000 worth of data online which is sold to marketing companies
and harvested, filtered and cross-referenced to provide detailed insight into our lives.
Facebook will know you’re gay before your mother does.
70% of us admit to fearing how much we have already shared. one in seven teenagers
in the US has sent a compromising image over the internet and had a sexual chat with a
A majority of European internet users are under the impression that a security service
has snooped into their conversations and activities.
FOUR - ONLINE CRIME IS OUT OF CONTROL
Over the last twenty years, crime has abated in many countries. Since it peaked in the
UK in 1995, it has fallen by 60%.
But Internet crime is exploding.
In 1990 the NSPCC estimated there were 7,000 known images of child pornography at large.
In 2014, American law enforcement found 42 million images on just one server.
The UK Government estimates 50,000 people in the UK are actively involved in downloading
and sharing images of child abuse.
Online abuse and hate-speech are endemic:On Twitter, 10,000 uses of racist slur
terms occur a day.
And 2000 Tweets are sent containing the word ‘rape’.
69% of young people in the UK have experienced cyber-bullying
The police are overwhelmed. The Head of the UK’s National Crime Agency recently
said they would only ever be able to focus on less than 1% of child porn users.
One view is that new technologies have always brought anxieties with them, and that they
always turn out to be groundless.
Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus warned that books would promote forgetfulness. People
would become the “hearers of many things and will have learned nothing”.
But that’s too rosy and too relaxed about what we’re facing. Technologies can and
do bring serious lasting problems. As the residents of Hiroshima realised.
The internet presents unrivalled challenges to our abilities to:
- interact deeply with our partners
- keep our critical faculties alive
- stop thinking that the answers always lie ‘out there’.
- remain emotionally connected to real-life people.
- and make the discoveries that come when we are bored and letting our minds lie fallow.
We need to start to take active measures to
educate our children in the dangers of this tool
reconnect with the natural world talk to one another face to face
stop downloading images of naked people get bored
and take regular digital sabbaths.
We need to learn to control ourselves not because the internet is so bad, but precisely
because it’s so very very nice - in ways that turn out to be deeply detrimental to
our ability to flourish and function..
We can accept that it is not a good thing to let a fifteen year old boy have unmonitored
access to the internet in his bedroom. Not because we think he is wicked. But because
we are generous. We understand that asking for self-control in those circumstances is
too demanding. A similar argument applies if you happen to be twenty six - or forty
The internet has unparalleled power to get in the way of almost every other rather important
and precious thing around - starting with the rest of your life.