Was the world better off before the internet?
It’s a valid question at a time when the internet’s negative effects are becoming more obvious than its positives. With security threats and divisiveness exploding, it’s increasingly looking like we may not be getting such a good deal from being online, after all.
To drive the first point home, the American security luminary Bruce Schneier last week told the US House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee that the “era of fun and games is over, because the internet is now dangerous.”
He was referring to the October 21 cyber-attack on Dyn, a US-based internet infrastructure management provider. In October, hackers used Internet of Things gadgets – connected light bulbs, printers and baby monitors – to mount a large-scale denial-of-service attack on the company. They successfully took down the likes of Amazon, Netflix and other web services.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid such hacks, Mr Schneier said. Individual gadgets can be made secure, but connecting them creates additional vulnerabilities, which inevitably gives hackers an ever-multiplying advantage. Defence is harder than attack, which is why the Internet of Things has become the “world of dangerous things”, he said.
A group of security researchers compounded the point shortly after the Dyn attack by hacking into smart light bulbs using a flying drone. Messing with light bulbs sounds innocuous, but the researchers found it easy to spread their hack to other devices, virus-like.
Now, imagine millions of bulbs turning on simultaneously. The resultant power surge could easily knock out a city’s power grid, inviting catastrophe. As Mr Scheier said, this is the emergent dark side of putting computing and connectivity into everything.
Cybercrime costs the global economy around half a trillion US dollars a year, according to a 2014 study sponsored by the software security company McAfee.
Then there are the losses to social capital.
Chances are good Mr Schneier wasn’t referring to the recent US election when he said the internet is dangerous, but he may as well have.
After the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election victory, hate crimes have risen measurably in several countries. Fake news and ideological echo chambers, spread and reinforced by the likes of Facebook and Twitter, are taking much of the blame.
Social media companies are now scrambling to stem this overflow of fake news – known as “propaganda” in pre-internet times – on their platforms. While giving everyone in the world the ability to be their own publisher may have sounded very democratic a few years ago, it doesn’t appear to be turning out that well in practice.
Social media is also taking the blame for rising levels of mental anxieties around the world. In the United States, for one, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that antidepressant use rose by 400 per cent between 1988 and 2008. In Japan, depression diagnoses more than doubled between 1999 and 2008.
Many factors play into those numbers, but researchers at the University of Michigan believe social comparisons and the pressure of performance are key among them. In other words, it’s easy to get down about your own life when you constantly see photos and updates from friends and colleagues about how supposedly great theirs are.
The internet has provided much obvious upside to the world, from enabling farmers to better ascertain market prices for their crops to allowing Starbucks customers to order their coffees in advance. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Institute, it has propelled more than a fifth of gross domestic product growth across developed countries and created more than double the jobs lost to technological efficiency.
The internet’s benefits are well understood. But its downsides – its costs – are now becoming clearer.
The potential for mass catastrophe, instigated by something as innocuous as internet-connected printers and light bulbs, as well as fraying social connections and rising anxieties, is the apparent trade-off.
It’s harder to quantify these costs since they may or may not happen or they’re not clearly caused by one factor. But there is definitely a growing need to try and assess just how much damage the internet is doing, and could do.
When the equation is better understood, we may find that tuning out or turning it off entirely is a better idea.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species
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