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View From The North
July 15, 2008

Exploring the Social and Cultural Impact of the Internet: Five Visions
by Mark Wegierski

[Breaker: Where might the Internet be taking us?]

The advance of the computer/electronics revolution and the Internet can be looked at in terms of five main visions. Some of these are rather extreme scenarios that will come to pass only if the natural defenses of more traditional outlooks, acting in concert with representative democracy, cease to operate. Still, they are potential hazards that bear watching as we proceed.

Corporate Net: Huge conglomerates like Time-Warner, Disney, DreamWorks, and Microsoft have all the resources to offer the most acclaimed kinds of Net products. According to this view, the Internet will become another vehicle to increase the social and cultural dominance of sports industries, the Hollywood entertainment complex, the rock and rap music, the fashion industry, video games, and, of course, the "pornucopia."

All this will intensify consumerism. This is likely to end up with a world like that portrayed in Ridley Scott's haunting dark-future film Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), or in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick), or with the antiseptic and soulless society of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Nerd Net: The Net does not really offer untold wealth and power to its participants. Rather, it often proffers to technonerds, wildly enraptured by the science fictional writings of cyberpunk guru William Gibson, an illusion of mastery. They play in their virtual environments and continually surf the Net in search of various kicks. The hacker elite flexes its muscles by implanting computer viruses or breaking into less or more important data banks. One might well ask how much meaningful social change does this generate?

If computer users are indeed the brainless, flat-souled product of the current-day consumption-culture and educational system, no amount of neat software and information is going to improve them. Indeed, only those who are real personalities -- real "persons of spirit" -- to begin with might start to have an impact. Only then might Gibson's vision -- in terms of the critical importance of "netrunners," though hopefully not in terms of a heavily polluted, corporation-run world -- begin to have some substance.

Rightwing Net: According to some, the Net is teeming with all kinds of right-wing ideas that have been suppressed in North America's public and corporate cultures. Alternative right-wing communities and lobby groups can form on the Net. The economic transformations engendered by the electronic cottage are also interpreted by some as having a conservatizing edge. People will increasingly cocoon around their family home and not have the need to go to the big office towers downtown, thus starving the inner cities of their last major source of tax revenue. The final result of this intensifying disjunction may be a scenario portrayed in such sci-fi movies as Escape from New York (and its 1990s sequel, Escape from Los Angeles), where the urban hell-zones are walled off from the rest of the country.

New-Age Net: The Net is indeed central to the future. It is the place where a new planetary consciousness is being born. Young people all over the world are forging links that are, despite the heavy corporate presence, independent of the transnationals. The Net will finally translate the world-transforming ideas of the new social movements that arose in the Sixties, into a concrete, global-wide reality. Further down the road, there may emerge the possibility of "uploading" human consciousness into electronic form, which some have envisioned could be a state of a human mind totally willing its own reality. The possible perils of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality were explored in The Matrix film trilogy.

Fragmentation Net: The dislocations engendered by the Internet and the electronization of the world will constitute a profoundly trying time. Perhaps no one vision will ever triumph, and instability will become chronic. While the Net may encourage varied, high-level philosophical debate, it can also encourage varied kinds of depravity. One possible outcome might be a mentality seen in the Mad Max/Road Warrior movies — a "war of all against all."

While these scenarios are hypothetical, something along these lines might occur if Americans and Canadians fail in upholding the corrective functions of their respective republican and parliamentary systems. The obsession with technology, cyberspace, and the resultant social hyper-fragmentation could lead to the swallowing up of common public concern by an entertainment realm of images and illusions, and by various, ever more narrowly channeled, mutually unintelligible, micro-interests.

The result might well be a North American civilization unable to effectively deal with the rather more concrete local and global social and environmental questions, including serious threats from rogue regimes and groups, increasing disparities between rich and poor, overpopulation, mass immigration, the crisis of public and social morality, and global ecological collapse.

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Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as in U.S. scholarly journals such as HUMANITAS, REVIEW OF METAPHYSICS, and TELOS, and in U.S. magazines such as CHRONICLES and THE WORLD & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.

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