Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility : As We Grow More Dependent on the Internet, We Grow More Vulnerable

By Fagin, Barry S. | The World and I, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility : As We Grow More Dependent on the Internet, We Grow More Vulnerable


Fagin, Barry S., The World and I


Any new technology brings opportunities and challenges. The taming of fire, the invention of the printing press, and the discovery of DNA were all major technological events that stretched our thinking. They forced us to reexamine how society should be organized, how we should live our lives, and even what it means to be human. Changes and social upheaval wrought by the Internet should be seen as part of that recurring theme. The creations of man's mind have always stirred the fires of his heart.

The Internet, however, is unique in its breadth and depth: Nothing in the history of civilization has affected so many people in so short a time. If the job of scientists is to make philosophers' lives difficult, then the Internet may be our greatest success. Let's see why.

The benefits

The possibility of information access from anywhere at any time means that distance isn't as important as it once was. This empowers individuals: In a world where distance matters less, people matter more.

Most people cannot travel to Paris to see the Louvre: www.louvre.fr brings the museum to them. You may live in a place that doesn't have a world- class university, but you can download course materials from www.mit.edu. You may not know anyone who has to care for a spouse with Alzheimer's, but you can find hundreds of them online who will answer questions and provide emotional support.

I'm typing this article from across the ocean, but a voice/Webcam chat with my family is a mouse click away. These are all examples of how the Internet reduces the importance of distance.

Additionally, citizens in democratic regimes benefit from easy access to information the Internet provides. Democracy works best when its citizens are informed, its elections fair, and its leaders accountable.

The Internet has produced social benefits in all these areas. In the United States, virtually all candidates for national, state, and in many cases local office have Web sites to acquaint prospective voters with their positions. Most members of Congress also have Web sites and regularly use email to communicate with their constituents. Government agencies publish forms and searchable databases online, making it easier for citizens to get their questions answered.

Many state governments have Web sites where visitors can track legislation, examine voting records, and review transcripts of committee meetings. (My home state of Colorado has an excellent Web site.) Overseas, sites like Russia's www.elections.ru can help fledgling democracies take root and grow as first-time voters come online to learn about candidates and political parties.

For countries enjoying the benefits of freedom and democracy, embracing the Internet has been relatively painless. For other nations, the process has proved more difficult. The Internet confronts authoritarian regimes with an impossible choice: how to obtain the economic benefits of the Internet for citizens, while still controlling their access to information.

This choice is impossible because the laws of physics do not distinguish between bits that represent investment capital and bits that represent ideas. Such distinctions are made only in the human mind.

Confronting this dilemma has caused many authoritarian nations to relax their policies of information control, in a tacit acknowledgment that the Internet renders separating freedom of information from economic growth impossible. Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia, and Singapore fall into this category.

Other countries, sadly, have gone the other way. Iraq, Libya, and North Korea have no Internet connections, virtually guaranteeing their continued economic stagnation and isolation from the rest of the world.

A few nations, notably China and Saudi Arabia, still want it both ways. They are trying to develop an Internet infrastructure while at the same time implementing some of the most repressive Internet regulation regimes in the world. …

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Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility : As We Grow More Dependent on the Internet, We Grow More Vulnerable
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