The Web Is Our Friend

February 20, 2011

cellphones connect peopleWhen one begins a fearless, honest and thorough thought journey of all things Web-related, there are a few fundamental questions that must be answered before moving on. The first involves the nature of the Web as it relates to humankind. Is it a friend or a foe, or does that depend entirely on the people using it?

It can't be neither, because its power to disrupt is already well-documented, and it can't be neutral — just technology — because its intimate knowledge of us and how we use it takes it beyond the ones and zeros that are its language. In ways both tangible and esoteric, the Web is us.

This question is important today, because we've just witnessed remarkable events of historic proportions in the Middle East, where angry and oppressed people have used the tools of the Web to force a reshaping of their culture. The ability to see where this goes or how far it could go depends on one's view of the nature of the Web. Is it friend or foe, Big Brother or a big brother, Utopia or a sad delusion?

In Kevin Kelly's brilliant 2005 piece in Wired, We Are The Web, Kelly refers to the Web as a smart "Machine" that is learning every day. This is a seminal thought about the Web, and Kelly's article is one of those essays that must be read over and over, because subsequent readings produce additional thoughts.

Not only did we fail to imagine what the Web would become, we still don't see it today! We are blind to the miracle it has blossomed into. And as a result of ignoring what the Web really is, we are likely to miss what it will grow into over the next 10 years.

Kelly called the link "the most powerful invention of the decade" and noted that linking "unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible." The Machine, he wrote, is growing and learning, and it's being taught by us, because WE are the Machine, the Web.

When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea.

Powerful and profound words. When I interviewed Kelly last year for a forthcoming book, he told me that if he was writing the essay today, he would alter the 2015 section to include how rapidly the streams and flows of knowledge are moving to real time. The smart Machine will represent our thoughts as a community of citizens here and now. Stunning.

scene from Terminator 3 Rise of the MachinesBut aren't smart machines the fear of science fiction writers everywhere, a demon force of pure logic that demands resources and eschews human life by simply eliminating it? Remember The Terminator? And the Rise of the Machines? And what about 1984's Big Brother? Machines running amok have been at the heart of science fiction for decades, so we should be fearful of one that so closely mirrors — or "is" — us, right? If human nature is corrupt at core then surely any smart Machine that Kevin Kelly conceives would be similarly corrupt. We fear enslavement to smart machines, because at core we think they might be smarter than us and stronger than us, our weapons therefore insufficient, as in Star Trek's greatest enemy, The Borg. "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." That assimilation means the loss of our identity as individuals and a total loss of our freedom, because we'd function at the behest of the collective and its hive mind.

Is the Web really a friend or a foe? And if we don't know yet, how can we be assured that it will be only a friend?

This is a question that must be answered before you can drift downstream and look at tomorrow. And it's a question not only for the philosophers but also for everyone else, from business woman to artist, from elected official to pro athlete, from homemaker to explorer.

To the philosopher, the question is really one that demands exploration of one's view of human nature, for if the Machine is us, then it will reflect who we are, good, evil or both. To me, therefore, the Web can only be a friend, because as much as we may think of ourselves as good, evil or both, we can also envision internal checks against the extremes of either. That's because the seeds of mercy and justice live within us, and that is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. In my study of people, however, I've come to realize that justice and mercy are rarely, if ever, manifest as equally default in any individual. We are generally either just or merciful, so facing the opposite via a Machine that combines both is a positive for either.

As we dive deeper into a post-Christian culture in the West, we're losing a key internal governor upon which freedoms is based — retribution for breaking a promise. If we fear only the state, then we're only going to watch our behavior when the state is present. This is why nobody likes to drive in front of a police car. With the internal governor of old, promises and oaths meant more than just words, because those making the promises or swearing the oaths feared, at least on some level, punishment beyond the grave for violating those promises and oaths. It was a long way from perfect, but it was something that people thought about, an internal check. I'm old enough to know what that was like, at least on some level. Today, Christianity is so fragmented that it can hardly be considered a single religion anymore, and the fear of hell is but a distant myth. It was the stuff of good citizens while it lasted, but we clearly need something else to function in that capacity today.

Democracy, the kind that we all seem to want for our children, is problematic without an internal governor among the citizens. A lot of smart people think education will equip us to always do the right thing, but I think that view is naive.

The Machine that is us, however, could replace that internal governor, if we'd let it, by allowing hyperconnectivity to provide the checks. That would be a net gain for humankind, although the fear of such is strong. Freedom, however, is not license, and that's a lesson that people have forgotten thanks to the industrial age and its "American dream," captured in marketing slogans that promise the world for those who will spend. Go to school. Be a good citizen. Pay your taxes. And everything is possible to you. The postmodern culture recognizes this as bull hooey. Look around. The ruin is everywhere.

The events of 2011 in the Arab world are pointing to another reason why I think the Machine is a friend and not a foe. There's a debate in some circles today about the role that social media played in these events. To the people on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia who were actually revolting, however, this debate is silly, because each will admit that it would not have happened were it not for Facebook and Twitter. This is profoundly important to understand, because social media represents a dynamic of the Machine that is "new under the sun." The Web isn't a two-way form of communication; it's decidedly three-way: up, down and sideways. It is the sideways — or horizontal — direction that takes away the fear of totalitarianism and renders such governments powerless. It's also why the threat of dictators to cut off the Web is one that all free people must resist.

Big BrotherIn Orwell's 1984, for example, the populace was observed and controlled by Big Brother, an up/down Machine. Up and down are what's necessary for any hierarchy to rule, and up/down is an important cog in the wheel of the industrial age. But once the horizontal is injected, orders from higher up the hierarchy can be discussed among those being ordered, and the horizontal masses can say a collective "no." This is why an open Web is so vital to freedom and why institutional command-and-control mechanisms are all in trouble. God, the Father, gives way to God, the Holy Spirit, and that won't produce a lot of right-wing despots.

Horizontal connectivity also allows people to deconstruct the orders from on high and rightly argue against them as self-serving. This, too, is a direct challenge to institutional authority, that which hides its self-centeredness beneath the cloak of meeting the needs of the community. Such cannot and will not last with the Machine that is us.

I teach my students that the Web is their friend and the friend of humankind, and that it's their duty to protect it and advance it. My work has been consistent with this message, because I long ago answered the question posed at the beginning of this paper. I view tomorrow with optimistic and positive eyes, because imagination is what has to drive the ship today. We've gone as far as we can go with the process and profit of modernism, and as the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens, I see only ruin on the horizon by staying this course. The left brain, bean counting "managers" must step aside for the right brain, goal-oriented "leaders," and the Web will be their tool, a smart Machine that speaks for us all, because it is us all.

The battle over this has just begun, and it's going to get ugly for a season as the fatted calves of the status quo get whacked at home and abroad. Executives of businesses everywhere — and especially in the world of media, to which this essay series is dedicated — need to be following the work of great 21st Century thinkers like Umair Haque, John Hagel, Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen and others. They write about the new rules, and many are quite the opposite of our practices and assumptions today. There's no time like the present to get started.

I assume there will be a new elite that's born of the Machine, because there's something about that in human nature, too. At this point, however, we can only speculate as to the make-up of that elite, but I think they'll be wired, portable, prolific, active and extremely influential in real time. They may or may not be wealthy, but wealth alone won't determine their status. They will, however, want for nothing.

Institutions will be forced to serve humankind and not themselves, for one's tenure will be based not on what one has done but on what one is doing. Education will be much more universal and self sustenance will reach heretofore considered impossible levels, as we work together to overcome life's problems, including sickness and disease, legal matters, human relations, the environment and many, many others.

The Web is us, and we can do anything together.