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« All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter | Main | Managing for Business Effectiveness »
Wednesday
Sep052007

Net Is A Reflection of Society

As Chair of the Computer History Museum's Fellow Awards I took special notice of CHM Fellow Vint Cerf's BBC interviews last month on how the Internet has evolved and where it is heading next.

There are many interesting points in these and other interviews by Mr. Cerf on this topic. However, his pointed comments about censorship and society made me pause to consider more than the future of technology.

How has the Net evolved?

Illustration: Mirror Image

In a radio interview, Cerf is bemused that comments on the future of the Internet were recorded using 19th Century media:

“It has been an organic evolution and has benefited from the contributions and creativity of its users. We’ve seen that in the past –- people doing blogging, doing video uploading, and putting up their own Web pages. The traditional consumer has become the producer as well.”

Listening to Cerf I thought how extremely hard it is for me to imagine what my world -- our world -- would be like without the Web. Besides the basics of emailing, eCommerce, researching, and networking, I realize how much I rely on the Internet to expand my world view and to retrieve unfiltered front line news. Now I rarely watch television.

We owe tremendous gratitude to Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Paul Baran and many other contributors for their foresight in creating an Internet that is of the people, for the people. But as with the freedoms that form the core of our country’s constitution, Cerf reminds us not to take it for granted:

“Those of us who want an open environment have to keep working and fighting for it,” says Cerf. To the question, “How do we maintain the idea of trust?” Cerf responds, “In terms of content… that becomes the job of the consumers. We already do that with other media.”

Where is the Internet heading next?

In another BBC interview, Cerf defended the Internet further, “The internet should not be used as a scapegoat for society’s ills." As the reporter says, "Anyone regulating beyond what was clearly illegal put themselves on a “slippery slope” that could limit freedom of expression.”

My question, which Cerf alludes to, is this: “What person or government would we entrust to filter our information?”

Rather than impose controls centrally, Cerf argues it is far better to put them at the edges of the network where users go online. For instance, searching for results via Google can be constrained by filters that can be set to be strict or lax.

As I listened to the interview, I’m reminded that we must be ever conscious to make important distinctions. And we must take responsibility as individuals. When we look away, we are quick to blame technology and the media for the problems of society. When we don’t want to be individually responsible, we look for a leader, a government, or benevolent dictator to protect us from ourselves.

Case in point: The August Pew Research report, Public Blames Media for Too Much Celebrity Coverage. Are we being responsible? Are we saying one thing and doing another?

We are looking at ourselves

Just as television reflects society, so does the Internet. Cerf continues by saying it is a mistake to divorce what is seen online from what happens in the real world. Most of the content on the network is contributed by the users of the Internet. So what we're seeing on the net is a reflection of the society we live in.

"Maybe it is important for us to look at that society and try to do something about what's happening, what we are seeing.” He added, "When you have a problem in the mirror you don't fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror."

"So we have a job to do, collectively as a society, to deal with the problems we discover in the network," said Cerf, "but suppressing the knowledge of what's going isn't going to help us. We need to face that problem directly."

“A billion stars go spinning through the night blazing high above your head. But in you is the presence that will be, when all the stars are dead.”

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, Buddha In Glory

If you're interested in a longer video with more from Cerf about the Internet, past and present:

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