Ray Tomlinson – the man who invented email, put the "@" sign on the map and played a crucial role in creating the Internet – died on Monday. Tech leaders mourned his passing and praised his contributions to the development of the web on Twitter (a fitting way to eulogise a founding father of the internet, IMHO). He's been lauded as "legendary", a "pioneer" and a "modern day hero".
The tributes are certainly in order: email is the most popular web-based application of all time, with more than 1.5 billion users worldwide. Without it, the internet wouldn't be anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today.
But maybe that's not such a good thing.
For all the positive change the digital revolution has brought about, it's also done some serious harm. Web 2.0 companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have killed hundreds of thousands of jobs and hollowed out the middle class. They've compounded social and economic inequalities across the globe. They've raised serious concerns about mass surveillance and our right to privacy. And they've made us unhappier, lonelier and more envious than ever before.
Sure, it's nice to order a book on Amazon today and have it delivered tomorrow; and yes, this meme on FuckJerry's Instagram is pretty funny; and yes, it's great we can stay in touch with our friends on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, iMessage – the list goes on – no matter how far away they are. But as Andrew Keen, the web's most outspoken critic, writes in The Internet Is Not the Answer, the medium's "hidden negatives outweigh the self-evident positives".
If at first, like me, you don't believe him – if you're sick of old people telling you the internet is ruining the world – keep reading. I've put together all the evidence that changed my mind.
THE INTERNET IS KILLING JOBS AND COMPOUNDING INCOME INEQUALITY
Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are sitting on billions in cash. Their founders and CEOs are among the richest individuals on the globe. Google's co-founders, for example, have amassed fortunes of about £23 billion each [€30 billion EUR], the BBC reports. But they're not spreading the wealth.
Instead, a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires are growing richer and richer as the rest of the world slides deeper into poverty – and finds fewer jobs available to them than ever before.
When Jeff Bezos (who's valued at about £35 billion) launched Amazon in the mid-90s there were around 4,000 bookstores in America. Two decades later, Keen writes, that number had been cut in half, "resulting in thousands of lost retail jobs". Amazon destroyed 27,000 jobs in 2012 alone, estimates The US Institute of Local Self-Reliance. Now that Amazon has expanded beyond bookselling, Keen writes, it is "squeezing jobs in every retail sector – from clothing, electronics and toys to garden furniture and jewellery".
In 2014, Google, valued at over £280 billion [€363 billion EUR], employed just 46,000 people. Compare that to the £38 billion [€49 billion EUR] auto giant General Motors, which in the same year employed more than 200,000. When Instagram was purchased for $1 billion (€907 million) in 2012, a mere 13 people worked for the company. The photo-sharing site's pre-digital counterpart, Kodak, employed 145,000 at its peak in 1989.
While Google's 46,000 jobs – or Apple's 101,000 full-time positions, or Facebook's 13,000 – are nothing to scoff at, these numbers are staggeringly low given the companies' revenues.
And not just anyone can go to work for a tech giant. "Computer technology does create jobs," Keen writes, but only "for highly skilled, affluent workers." Meanwhile, low and middle-class workers are falling deeper into poverty. "Since the mid-1970s," Keen writes, "the relative amount of income going to workers has been in decline around the world."
THE INTERNET IS TURNING US ALL INTO SAD, LONELY, SELFIE-OBSESSED NARCISSISTS
Facebook's 1.4 billion active monthly users spend an average of 20 percent of all their time on the internet using the social media site. It's marketed as a platform that unites us, builds trust and makes us happier. In reality, it does the opposite.
A 2013 study at the University of Michigan found that Facebook is making its members "unhappier and more envious of others". In a nationwide poll of Facebook users in the US, only 5 percent said they trusted the site with their data. A third study at Berlin's Humboldt University found that "Facebook made more than 30 percent of its users feel lonelier, angrier or more frustrated".
Strangely, the more bummed out we get, the more we seem to grow obsessed with ourselves. A 2010 study in Psychology Today found that the percentage of college students with narcissistic personality traits has doubled since the 1980s, jumping to 30 percent in recent years. The trend is due, in large part, to the advent of selfie culture – a culture in which we constantly broadcast images of ourselves on Instagram, striving to rack up followers who reaffirm our self worth by liking a photo of, say, our smiling faces as we gulp down a milkshake bigger than any milkshake should ever be. As Keen points out, 50 percent of all the photos posted on Instagram in the UK by 14 to 21-year-olds are selfies, and "many" of those users "use this medium to reify their existence".
INTERNET TECH COMPANIES KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT US AND THEY'RE SELLING OUR DATA TO ADVERTISERS, SURVEILLANCE FIRMS AND THE GOVERNMENT
What makes Instagram, Facebook and Google so valuable isn't their software. It's the fact that millions of people willingly provide these companies with detailed data about their interests, habits and aspirations, as well as minute-to-minute location updates. Every time we post a photo, like a page or write a status update we are working, for free, to make the world's most powerful internet companies – the same ones killing jobs, compounding income inequality and making us sad, lonely and narcissistic – as valuable as they are. Ever noticed how after you google, say, the cost of a flight to Thailand, advertisements for hotels in Bangkok pop up on your news feed? Internet tech companies sell the troves of data they've gathered about our lives to advertisers, who can then target us with clairvoyant accuracy.
But that's not so bad. Those advertisements, even if a bit creepy, are harmless. Truly terrifying is the work being done at surveillance firms like Palantir, which sift through immense amounts of our data and package it for a range of clients in the government intent on keeping tabs on – well, everything. Everything they could possibly want to know about our lives.
Palantir's list of patrons includes the CIA, FBI, Army, Marines, Air Force and the US Defense Department, along with a few segments of the British government. One civil liberties analyst described their technology as a precursor to a "true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale". A Special Forces member based in Afghanistan who's used Palantir extensively compared it to playing God.
"It's like plugging into the Matrix," he told Bloomberg Businessweek. "The first time I saw it, I was like, 'Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap.'"
AND YET, THE INTERNET KIND OF RULES
Yes, social networks like Facebook make their users sad, lonely, envious and narcissistic. But they also bring people together in a way that was impossible before the dawn of the digital age.
Yes, online retail sites like Amazon are destroying jobs at a devastating rate. But they also sell pretty much everything ever made on the cheap, which, frankly, rules.
And yes, surveillance firms like Palantir are terrifying; but they've also helped uncover bombing networks in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I'm not asking you to delete your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, smash your smartphone into a million pieces and devote yourself to a life of digital celibacy. But it is important to decide how deeply we want the internet to impact our economies, our privacy and our lives. And when it comes down to it – as the people who make the web more and more powerful every time we click, search, scroll and post – that's our decision to make.
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