It could be said that technology, the making of tools, is one of the fundamental characteristics the distinguishes humans from their mammalian cousins. It is a process of development that has been going on since neolithic people first made instruments from stone. For many many centuries it was a gradual process allowing people time to adapt their lives and social institutions to the technological change. In the 18th C there was a sudden acceleration which is referred to as the industrial revolution. Many books have been written on the dramatic changes it brought to the world. Among other things it created great differences in wealth and power between the nations that were industrialized and those that were not.
As the pace of technological change accelerated, there was a series of changes that altered the nature of human activity. Travel moved from riding a horse to steam trains, to automobiles, to airplanes. Communication moved from writing letters, to the telegraph, to the telephone. These changes impacted economic, social and political relationships. At times they created significant disruption for some people, but generally the world was able to adapt to them.
I would argue that the development of the atomic bomb was the first point in human history that it became necessary to deal with the possibility that humans could lose control of technology. It quickly set off an arms race that resulted in a stockpile of bombs sufficient to essentially destroy the planet. So far political institutions have been able to avoid such a catastrophe, but as nuclear weapons proliferate, the concern is ever present. We have found no means of removing the threat.
Shortly after the mushroom cloud appeared over Hiroshima, another new technology made its appearance, the digital computer. At first they were a few giant machines using vacuum tubes that could perform only limited functions. However a series of breakthroughs have rendered computers, ever smaller, ever more powerful and ever less expensive to produce. The pace of this development has accelerated exponentially.
A little less than 20 years ago a Rubicon was crossed when the internet became an integral part of the lives of ordinary people. The development of relatively inexpensive microcomputers made it possible for a mass market to access what had been a network used by elite government, academic and corporate participants. It has spread to most of the world and Google is now putting up giant balloons to provide a WiFi network for areas that remain unconnected. Through devices like smartphones people remain connected to the internet for most of their waking lives. We can shop, communicate, and debate politics on it. Telephone communications have converged into the same digital network and on the same devices. Smart utility networks are under development that will turn out home appliances into something like smartphones that clean and cook.
As mass use of the internet began to take off there was speculation as to how it would shape social and political institutions. One popular view was that it would create a more participatory society. People who had ideas and opinions to express would no longer be restricted by media gate keepers at publishing or broadcast firms. There would be an era of new media leading to a less hierarchical social and political structure. The results of that have been somewhat mixed. Anybody can start a blog on almost any subject and social media have made it possible for people to organize various sorts of movements. You can communicate with people all over the globe and translation programs can to some extent bridge the gap of different languages. It does raise possibilities.
Early on we saw corporate media attempt to co-opt the new media by adapting traditional news publications to a blog like format where readers could make comments. The entertainment media converted the publication of music and movies to digital formats. They then ran up against the reality that the technology that made it easy and cheap to distribute to a mass market also made it just as easy to copy and redistribute without money flowing into their coffers. That was likely the first large scale campaign to control use of the internet. Congress was easily convinced that the entire future of free enterprise was threatened by music piracy.
It has been a matter of wide discussion that some countries such as China were attempting to control their citizens use of the internet. Google's willingness to comply with such regulations has been a matter of controversy. Now we have an increasing flow of revelations about the activities of other nations use of the internet to collect information about individuals and their communications with each other. The power and pervasive reach of the internet is pretty obvious. It should come as no surprise that governments want to exercise control over its power and the uses that people make of it.
The early internet got its start with the DARPA network established by the US Dept. of Defense in the 1960s. That has given an advantage to the internet/telecommunications industries in the US and to the US government. The network is structured in such a way that most global traffic flows through servers and cables located on US soil. We are just beginning to get a glimpse of the way that vast caches of information are collected about private individuals all over the world. We are also getting a glimpse of the participation of other nations such as the UK, France and Germany in such undertakings. The original justification was the threat of terrorism in the wake of 9/11, but it is clear that the purpose goes beyond that.
One of the issues to consider is that the very nature of the technology is that it is changing and evolving
at a rate that is much faster than traditional human institutions can adjust. The efforts of the music industry to block copying and sharing spurred new technological innovation. Things like peer to peer transfer by bittorrents emerged as a means of bypassing centralized servers that were easier to control. Virtual private networks make it possible to disguise a users identity and point of national origin. Methods of complex encryption make it difficult to read the content of intercepted messages. This communication arms race will certainly continue. The tools being developed are only likely to be used by techie geeks and people who have high stakes for avoiding detection. But, they will continue to exist.
What does this all mean for the vast majority of internet users who are swapping recipes and pictures of their children and pets? Before the issues of government intrusion arose most people seemed vaguely aware that the internet was not a place of secure privacy, but not many were willing to forgo the convenience and entertainment value. The awareness that big brother can and may be reading your emails and listening to you phone conversations is considerably more unsettling for many.
Clearly there is no way that we are going to get rid of the internet. It is going to penetrate our lives ever more deeply. The technology is impacting for more than just personal privacy. It is creating a great many other changes. It offers benefits and it carries risks. It is going to continue to be a rollercoaster ride.