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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Does the web change everything?

I have had a very polarised week so far with people expressing both extremes of "the web will change everything" to "the web changes nothing" and everything in between. This was partly focussed on a debate I took part in on Wikileaks and I have also started reading The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World by Evgeny Morozov.

I guess my own feeling is that the web will change nothing until we use it for that propose but the way it enables us to do so is new. What matters is that people understand it and use it. Take it seriously to shape the world. Not just see it as another channel to consume.

I go back to the frequent comment that I am unreasonable expecting people to think, and say what they think - that some people prefer not to think. Is this true or is it that we have trained them that it is risky to think?

Does the web move us away from a mass to an ecology of niches and individuals or do we just become a disorganised and chaotic mob? Do we need ideologies or -isms? If we need organising principles who is to say which wins - democracy or authoritarianism? The web can enhance both.

Maybe thinking is too hard after all ...

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Reader Comments (12)

I think that there have probably been seismic, revolutionary technology developments for every generation since the industrial revolution - it's just that as we look back, our ones seem *more* seismic and revolutionary because theirs are now the established norm (David Edgerton's Shock of the Old is worth a read on this subject - I also made some ramblings about it last week).

The other thing that I think probably spans each generation is that the New is difficult for many to accept because it flies in the face of the now-established opinion. I recently heard a senior IT guy from a major engineering company saying that Cloud Computing was nothing but outsourcing in another guise. The usual first reaction from people to significant change is denial...

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ballantine

The web as we know is like an organic growing global library of multimedia information as well as a means of communication with some boundaries, but less obvious than in the physical one to one behavioural world. In the physical world we don't have global government and hardly any global authorities. So we have a conundrum for country governments with different cultures and regimes who want to place us under their rules whether we are in that country or not. At the extreme we have China and the Middle East and on the other we have freer countries like the Netherlands. So the question is will we let these governments impose their physical and political rules on a global medium. I think not!! This in itself raises and interesting debate. It is not the web, it is global boundaries that we are debating.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob Twiddy

I think the web changes the way we can live are lives - only if we want it too and learn from experiencing it. It is just but also the extension of our daily lives and we can use according to our needs, but also choices.
I have a feeling that all throughout the history we always had various environments and tools and majority of the time we used them according to our personal preferences - for consumption, for development, for work etc. This has not changed with the web. What has changed is the ability to establish and maintain trusted relationships with individuals and sometimes the public. (once again, if we choose to do so).
What I like about Morozov's book though is the point on waking up for those, who see the web as the ultimate solution to all the issues humanity faces - which I very often see at conferences or other events. I am glad he is opening a new discourse.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSylwia Presley

I can only really report from my own perspective. I've been involved in the web since it opened up to the public. (Indeed, even before that in the days of DARPA and Veronica, but to a much lesser extent.)

What's happened over that time is that collaboration, openness and trust have become much more of a way of life for me and for the people I work with and for. The proportion of conventional 'command and control' has diminished to almost invisibility in my daily life, although I still experience it in my dealings with many companies and public bodies.

I'm one of the lucky ones, having worked 'for myself' for almost 30 years. But even then, I've transitioned from the autocratic to the democratic side of the spectrum. I've also moved from relying on my past reputation to win business to continually having to earn and sustain my reputation. Past deeds count for little (although evidence litters the web), accumulated experiences count for much, present deeds and relationships are all that really matter.

Hope I've not wandered too far from the point. To come back to it: the web experience has shown me the values that matter, it binds us (some of us anyway) across nations, cultures and interests. It helps break down barriers, which is exactly what we need as we hurtle through space on this "utterly insignificant little blue-green planet", as Douglas Adams so nicely put it.

It's our only home and we need a sense of togetherness, as experienced through the more positive aspects of social networking, to make the world better tomorrow than it is today.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Tebbutt

More than ten years ago, Phil Agre at UCLA, wrote "everybody knows the Internet is going to change the world, but nobody knows how". It's still true. It was also true about the personal computer before that.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon, and Evgeny Morozov's contrarian thinking, are recent examples of a discussion researchers were already having in the late 90's: the web makes censorship very hard, but it makes surveillance very easy. Those are two things the web has changed, even if some people think they cance each other out, and they impact society in many areas, in many ways.

The bigger picture is about getting away from "Technological Determinism", the idea technology makes things happen all by itself, and instead to pay attention to how technology is both adopted and adapted in different ways, and in different social contexts. Innovations take time to work their way through socities, and often change the world in ways their inventors never intended.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Rae

Good question Euan, it made me think, and hard!
I guess the web is currently in a state of chaos playing host to a network of mobs. But order always comes from chaos, and it will be shaped by a healthy mix of authoritarian and democratic principles. You're right, the web enables both. There will never be an outright winner but there will be losers - those that don't engage it. For me, the web still more of a tool than a way of life but that's not the case for my children. I use it, I take it seriously but I still don't fully understand it or it's ability to influence. I am beginning to realise that it has the potential to have more influence on my children's lives than I have. So time to read, for the sake of my kids!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSean Trainor

All I know is there is no other way I could have had this many smart people thinking about the subject and contributing to this comment thread without the internet .....

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Nice synchronicity: while pondering this I came across a Guardian review of "The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World" by Evgeny Morozov > http://bit.ly/efHuat <

I've been pushing IT for the sake of civil society since the 70s. (What we were doing while I was in SigInt left me with a very bad feeling.) By this I mean it's been a daily concern.

What I see is that the most superficial activities are rewarded with fabulous wealth while the most basic democratic processes are well behind the curve.


January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen Tremblay

Oh-wooops, I thought URLs would become active links.
* "The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World" by Evgeny Morozov
* my recent tweet

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen Tremblay

I believe there are 2 aspects to your phrase "I go back to the frequent comment that I am unreasonable expecting people to think, and say what they think - that some people prefer not to think" at the start of this post. We should consider the "thinking" as well as the "saying".

Many of the responses to date have focused on the "expecting people to think" piece, and that is necessary condition for progress but what about the readiness and willingness to "say what they think". Euan, as I have mentioned in emails, I am eager to better understand how we encourage people to engage on the web. The starting point will be in social/non-business interaction but how can we improve the business-oriented quantity and quality of discussion in blogs etc.
If we all "think" but keep the thoughts to ourselves (and I am one of the worst at doing this) then progress will be slow. So what can be done to make people more willing to engage? How do we invite them into the conversations? How do we get them to talk?

January 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilson
February 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn S Veitch

Interesting post John - thanks.

February 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

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