The Disappointment of the Internet
by Theo Henson — 2021-07-27
I do not dislike the Internet. Quite the contrary: I thoroughly enjoy it. My qualms with the Internet appear when I think about its potential. The potential of the Internet is something that is not often discussed. Perhaps because people are so engrossed in its current form that they cannot try to imagine its future, or its many possible pasts. I don’t think that the Internet’s potential for good—for advancing our society—has been fully realized, and I’m unsure if it ever will be; it is an example of a promising technology, stunted by human nature. In a way, the Internet is a disappointment.
Let us first define our terms: the Web is not the Net. While it is true that the most common use of the Internet is the World Wide Web, the two are not synonymous. The Web, what you are most likely reading this essay through, is but one suite of computer protocols and tools which utilize the Internet. Examples of other ways you may use the Internet are: text messages, online games, VPNs, protocols such as SSH, FTP, and so on. But for the average Internet user, this list really isn’t that long. Here is the first point I will go into: the bastardization of the Web, which has absorbed practically every use of the Internet into one system. When the World Wide Web was first created and adopted, people had no idea what it would become. It was initially designed as a system to transfer textual documents across computers. Its primary innovation was the embedded hyperlink, which allowed specific documents to be fetched when a section of text was clicked. This system has been augmented to be able to suit practically any task—tasks which could be done more efficiently outside of the Web’s system, but must now adopt its idiosyncrasies or never be used. This may seem like a small technical point, but it affects many of the other problems I find with the Internet.
There are some applications of the Internet that I see as properly fulfilling its potential—applications which are truly revolutionary. Take the example of Google Maps, specifically its satellite imagery feature. For free, anyone can look at a full scale model of the globe, zoom in from outer space, and land directly at their doorstep. Cartography has been solved, and there’s no question about it; the problem of creating an accurate model of the world and distributing it has been dealt with (and we've even gotten a head start on other planets), and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Maybe you don't like Google as a company, but that's not the point. The implementation doesn't particularly matter, I care about the fact that the technology exists.
The Internet is something that I think has the potential to solve problems in a way that past technologies couldn't. When I say that a problem such as cartography has been “solved” I don't mean that there can never be any more innovation in that area, rather, an innovation has been made that permanently shifts the entire problem's paradigm. The problem of distributing written text has been solved maybe three times: once with the creation of the first ancient written languages, again with the invention of the printing press, and most recently with the Web (whose original purpose was to solve written text, but as I have said, has changed). Here we get to a key issue I see with the Internet: the programmers who create problem-solving applications aren't inspired enough.
The Web has become so problematic and uninspired because of the kind of content it incentivizes people to create. It is so uninspired that I might even say it has gone back to not solving the problem it previously had—while the technology is still there, the way it is used has made large parts of the Web reverse in progress. Have you ever tried to look up a recipe online? It's a horrible experience. Advertisements would not be a problem if they weren't so obnoxious, intrusive, and literally dangerous, but it's difficult to control the type of ads that get shown on your website. Tracking cookies are easily blockable by those who care, but the EU created a law which forces any website that uses them to have annoying, confusing pop-ups for all of its users. But perhaps the biggest problem with the Web is the creation of SEO spam. SEO, or search engine optimization is the practice of modifying a website's content and metadata to make it perform better in search engines. On the surface it's not so bad, but in practice it often makes websites unbearable. Take the recipe example: search a recipe for something and the results you get will include people's life stories, unnecessarily wordy text, massive buttons to share the page on social media, large image files, and often on the same page, different recipes. These are all things that website creators are incentivized to include in their sites, and have become the status quo. (Notice that I consciously keep my website minimal.) Even for technical queries, if I search “change file attributes linux command” horribly bloated websites will come up, explaining what Linux is, what files are, what file attributes are, and finally, the single command I wanted, probably stored as an image meaning I can't copy/paste it. As the most prolific application of the Internet, the Web is particularly disappointing. Already I have shown a fundamental problem that we haven't solved yet: how do we organize all of our public information? Since clearly, modern search engines leave much to be desired.
Another key issue with the Internet is that the people who use it aren't inspired enough. In short, they aren't apt to see or care about its problems. There isn't enough of a demand for the paradigm-shifting applications which I believe are possible. We will never achieve a Star Trek-like future if people don't change. (I know that not everyone wants a Star Trek future, but I certainly do.) How do we solve this? You might jump to education, although I think the matter is deeper than that: our culture needs to change. Wikipedia is one of the greatest applications of the Internet, but people don't see it as such. We have access to so much more information than we did just thirty years ago, but it seems like no one cares. The sad reality: people are disappointing. People look at the Internet and see news and social media, not its potential. They overlook how much of an innovation it is, and the things it brings to the table concerning our society's future. Will our culture towards technology ever change? A pessimist might say no, but if we act that way then we will guarantee that nothing changes, even if there's a chance that things could.
Am I being too idealist or opinionated? Maybe, but does that mean we shouldn't try to make the Internet a more inspired place? I think not.