Blind Fear Of Cyberwar Drives Columnist To Call For Elimination Of The Internet

from the wait,-what? dept

Every time I think I’ve read the least well-thought out luddite argument, someone comes along to top it, and today we have columnist Robert Samuelson in the Washington post with what might be the silliest, most lacking-in-thought argument for why we should get rid of the internet. The short version: yes, the internet has provided us with some good stuff, but because there’s a yet unproven risk that it might also lead to some cyberattacks that might lead to as yet undetermined problems, we should scrap the whole thing. Oddly, the WaPo had put different titles on the piece online and in the print newspaper. Online, it’s entitled: “Beware the Internet and the danger of cyberattacks.” In the physical paper, they apparently went with the much more ridiculous: “Is the Internet Worth It?” with the clear implication being a fulfillment of Betteride’s Law that the answer is “no, the internet is not worth it.” It’s almost as if the WaPo realized how stupid that headline was, and thinks that its online readers might actually mock them for such a ridiculous headline.

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

Leaving aside the anachronism of GPS (er, that’s not the internet, Robert), this makes no sense. Samuelson brushes aside the vast benefits of the internet, and the fact that “instant access to vast amounts of information” leads to all sorts of opportunities for positive change in the world, including social and cultural enrichment, as well as economic growth. But none of that matters, because of the threat of an undefined “cyberwar.” Samuelson, later in the piece, even seems to admit two things: that there’s no evidence that “cyberwar” has done any real damage to date, and that many people think that it never will.

No matter, just because it might possibly happen and might possibly cause some problems, we should ditch the entire internet and everything that came with it.

I don’t know the odds of this technological Armageddon. I doubt anyone does. The fears may be wildly exaggerated, as Thomas Rid of Kings College London argues in his book “Cyber War Will Not Take Place” (already published in Britain, due out this fall in the United States). In living memory, there are many threats that, with hindsight, seemed hyped: the “missile gap” in 1960; the Y2K phenomenon in 2000 (the date change was allegedly going to disable many computer chips); and, so far, the prophecies of widespread terrorism after 9/11.

But… I’m still going to assume that the risk is so great, that we should just kill off the entire internet.

Really, when you think about it, the argument is so self-defeating to be insane: Samuelson is arguing that because bad people might take down parts of the internet, we should take down the whole entire thing to beat them to it. How does that make any sense at all.

Adam Thierer has written a detailed response which is worth reading, but I think the best response so far has come from David Weinberger, who reformulates Samuelson’s opening paragraph to cover a couple of other things we might as well repeal:

If I could, I would repeal the First Amendment. It is the governmental marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the TV talking heads, the bumperstickers, the op-eds that have to overstate their case to get published, and much more. But First Amendment’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous speech rights, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: free thinking. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.


If I could, I would repeal oxygen. It is the chemical marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the way it’s used by cigarette lighters, the buoyancy of kiddie swim fins, the infomercials that entertain us with how it helps remove cranberry juice from table cloths. But oxygen’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous chemicals, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: life on Earth. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

Thierer also points out that you could easily substitute automobiles, airplanes or basically almost any other modern technology. Yes, each of them creates some new risks and threats, but most of the world believes that the tremendous benefits and positives that come with them outweigh the theoretical risk. We don’t seek to ban cars and planes because they tend to crash and kill people. Will recognize the benefits, and the risks, while seeking to minimize the risks while improving the benefits. Apparently, in the world of Robert Samuelson, there is no cost-benefit analysis, there’s just “cost” and the cost is too damn high.

Update: The Disruptive Competition Project jokingly suggests that Samuelson’s piece was obviously satire:

Samuelson drops clues, however, that his tongue is firmly in cheek. The defective internal logic is the first. The Internet ‘merely’ provides us with email, Facebook, YouTube, and GPS, the column contends. The Internet’s “upside” is small. Yet we are so dependent upon it for communications and critical infrastructure such as energy, and health care that it constitutes a vulnerability. Moreover, Samuelson seems to contend, it is so essential to modern communications that it is a virtual attractive nuisance for warrantless surveillance by NSA. Thus, the Internet’s “downside” is under-appreciated.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Blind Fear Of Cyberwar Drives Columnist To Call For Elimination Of The Internet”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
silverscarcat (profile) says:


the Internet?s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet?s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It?s a mixed blessing ? and the mix may be moving against us.

Social impact is shallow, huh? Okay, let’s see…

Loss of e-mail, how would that affect people, oh, wait, how about contacting people instantly when they have a bill to pay or buying something quickly? Or maybe there’s some other thing, something like, IDK, being able to communicate with people quickly to organize a revolution or something… Or keeping up on various news and projects…

Wikipedia is at least as informative as Encyclopedia Britannica, even if people claim otherwise.

Facebook, yeah, I don’t like Facebook, but then again, I seem to recall that Twitter was used to organize the Arab Spring, so…

Hmm, I’m pretty sure the internet is more important than that moron thinks.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Hmm...

Not only that, but Facebook is one of the least important services on the internet and Wikipedia is useful, but not earth-shakingly so.

But the three things he names have one one thing in common: they are not the internet. They are services that use the internet. Even if they were totally worthless, that doesn’t speak to the internet’s usefulness at all.

The usefulness of the internet is that it allows easy global communications and data sharing by the common nobody. That’s it. The development of the internet is easily as earth-shaking as electrification.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Poe's law at work:

When it’s impossible to tell a complete kook from someone merely acting like one.

Personally I really hope it is indeed satire, as if he considers the mere possible threat that something bad might happen a good enough reason to scrap something that is quite possibly the most important technological innovation other than harnessing electricity, this poor guy has got to be living a nightmare, terrified off all the bad things that might happen at some point.

cosmicrat (profile) says:

How about we shut down all military and business computers...

Really, “the internet” is the least of our worries in the event of “Cyberwar” (ominous music… The really dangerous targets of cyberattacks (oh god, I used that word without quotes) are said to be critical infrastructure systems, military control and command computers, the president’s blackberry, etc.. Is this troglodyte suggesting we shut all those down too? Let’s ask the NSA if they would like to give up all their networked systems, or convince the makers of industrial machinery they need to go back to manual lever operated control systems.

In a way though, he has reinforced the simple solution to cyberattacks on critical systems, a solution that has been suggested on techdirt before; simply disconnect those machines from public networks.

Anonymous Coward says:

We also need to get rid of all our farms and grocery stores and just live off the land. Why? Because someone could poison our food supply, or a raiding party could burn all our farms and their crop fields to leave us to starve, and then we’d all die! At least this way we’ll be one step ahead of those evil poisoners and raiding parties!

Trelly (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But but but, if we can live off the land then they can still burn or poison our land! What we need to do is burn and poison our lands, and burn our villages to be sure they can’t harm us.

Of course, our Google fiber will remain because it’s buried. But they won’t know that, because we burned the maps in our offices.

out_of_the_blue says:

Well, here's typical Mike railing, then finds it's satire.

Went right over your head, eh, college boy? You did the same thing last week, had to pull back your take with an “update”.

Anyhoo, by odd coincidence, just before reading this I’d been thinking that the main flaw of teh internets is not that it’s disruptive, but corruptive. — That’s actually even worse than the spying it enables. — But I won’t bother to elaborate the point for hostile audience.

Take a loopy tour of! You always end up same place!
Masnicking: daily spurts of short and trivial traffic-generating items.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Well, here's typical Mike railing, then finds it's satire.

According to one froth-filled rant, it’s because, wait for it, he won’t hire her to insult us in one of her “provocative pieces.”

Wait, what?

Yes indeed, she wants him to forget the months of insults and accusations, and, while insulting Mike, she wants him to pay her to post her drivel as a TD article.

This is sour grapes because he is ignoring her reasonable suggestion. Besides, she usually “writes” for us for free. Why pay the crazy copyright lady?

Just for fun, maybe one of us should compile her rants and post it on an ad-supported blog, then see how she reacts.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

um, am i missing a little thing called logic here ? ? ?

A. the inertnet is not critical to our lives…
B. ZOMG! what if someone brings down the inertnet ! ! !
C. ? all the non-critical inertnet things don’t work, so-o-o-o, nothing of importance is messed up ? ? ?

either the inertnet *IS* important and we should have the APPROPRIATE amount of concern about cyberattacks;
the inertnet is *NOT* important and cyberattacks will only mess up someone’s porning so who cares…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

GMacGuffin says:

HaHaHa... Satire?

I read this article last night and was blown away — but didn’t bother to submit it to TD, as I figured there was no way it would be missed.

I too wondered if it might be satire, but decided it was simply too inept to qualify, even if satire was the intent, which it can’t have been, hapless and insipid as the piece was.

Also, the comments on the article itself illustrated that I was not alone …

Anonymous Coward says:

i’ll bet that this is exactly the step that will be taken! it may not be just yet, but it wont be long! governments hate the internet! everywhere can be informed instantly when they are up to no good and they hate it! each government wants to be able to use for their own stuff, for their own convenience. if there is anything posted that they dont want spread, they want to be able to remove it and make the person responsible for informing the world of whatever it is they shouldn’t have done, but did actually do, put straight into prison for an indeterminate time under whatever God awful charge can be dreamed up! while it suits the government, it’s fine. when it doesn’t, they want it gone!

Anonymous Coward says:

There would be very little in the line of cyberwars were not governments so obsessed with it as to create the weapons.

The US has basically went in and shown how it was done and then later owned up to being the driving force along with Israel behind the Stuxnet virus used to create damage. One of the remarks I had at the time of discovery was that after Iran took care of it, both M$ and Siemens had patches out for it nearly immediately afterwards. It didn’t take a wizard mentality to notice that.

The real item is no one took major security issue seriously in SCADA until it was demonstrated that they were vulnerable. Makers of SCADA systems required hardened routers for operation with hard coded admin passwords unknown to the IT community that set it up and unchangeable after it was discovered. That’s not a mark of built in security, that’s a mark of a back door. Put in a back door and someone will find the key sooner or later. With government efforts, make that sooner rather than later.

Ending the cyberwar threat requires governments to get out of the cyberwar mentality and that’s not going to happen now that it’s been shown to work in a few limited places.

Anonymous Coward says:

WTF You want to know how I see a store compared to the internet?

GetLineState, HurryTheFuckUp, StopTalkingToTheCashierPLZ
If HurryTheFuckUp = ForTheLoveOfGod
ToolTip, Hurry the hell up! Asshole..
Sleep, 300000

GetLineState, HurryTheFuckUpMORE, NowImPissed
If HurryTheFuckUpMORE = ImGoingNuclear
ToolTip, Your brass knuckles are in your left pocket.
Sleep, 300000

GetLineState, NoBodyInLine, GoShopSomeMore
If NoBodyInLine = True
ToolTip, Go shop till there are enough people in line that you can bitch about it.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:


Satire or not the idea of doing away with the internet is something I’ve never actually thought about. Even in the times I’ve been cut off for one reason or another it is out there, either waiting to be installed or returned to.

I’m in my late twenties and while kids today are growing up with the internet my generation has largely matured with it. From a thing that didn’t seem to exist to me as a kid, to a young gangly geeky teenager engaging in a young gangly geeky web that was stretching and testing to find it’s feet to understand it’s potential in the same way I was. It’s felt a like a mirror to my own development and now I’m meant to be an adult the net and the web are things that are as much an embedded reality of my life as water or electricity. Wonderful amazing things piped in to my house that I could almost forget are not as natural as the air I breath.

The idea of shutting that down, of cutting that off permanently, honestly feels like I’d be losing a part of my self. On top of that I believe that there is a deep seated low level change taking place in the way that people raised in a world of a ubiquitous free and open web and I think it has the potential to lead to a great and wonderful things.

I’ve heard it said that Homo Sapiens isn’t quite the right word for us, that being ‘wise’ is the function of what actually makes us unique, story telling. We really should be Pan Narrans or something similar. The reason I bring it up? storytelling is way for us to both contextualise and more importantly in this context externalise our intelligence (I believe it’s termed excelligence) as way for us to store information as a group. What an individual adds is not lost on their death and it allows growth of the tribe thought the information and analysis in the stories it tells about itself.

Many of the great leaps forward for us have been technologies that augment and extend that excelligence, language, writing, printing. They are all of value because they are all ways of us externalising our thoughts and more importantly sorting and communicating those thoughts to others. The internet, as you may have guessed this was leading to, is what seems like the ultimate expression of this advancement. It plugs into a fundamental truth of how we work, of how we’ve evolved and advanced and it has the potential to make the future wonderful.

When we talk about fighting for a free and open web this is part of the reason that I do. The internet seem simply to be the next logical stage in the evolution of our excelligence something that is as much a part of what makes us us as the changes in our physical evolution. To turn out back on that because it’s a big scary is not just to lose a useful tool that is part of our lives it’s to turn out back on finding out what we can become.

I didn’t mean this to turn into such a long rambling rant but I just feel there is more to the question of “Is the internet worth it?” that largely goes undiscussed.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop ยป