David A. Wheeler's Blog

Thu, 20 May 2010

Stop Worrying and Love the Internet

Back in 1999 Douglas Adams wrote “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. It’s a wonderful essay that is still a good read today. In particular, I think it’s an important article to read if you’re still struggling with understanding where the Internet is going, or if you’re trying to figure out how to address the trustworthiness of group-developed information like Wikipedia, open source software, or the blogosphere. Adams said:

“Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back — like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust — of course you can’t, it’s just people talking — but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV [emphasis mine] — a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make… Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.”

My thanks to Andrew Sullivan for reminding me of this important piece.

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