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.
: 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.