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The future of civilization is linked to the Internet
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Forsyth County News
As future historians examine key developments that transformed civilization, the 1980s will likely be viewed as one of the most significant of all time periods. It will rank with those periods that followed the invention of the printing press, the steam engine or the transistor.

While the genesis of the Internet actually occurred more than a decade or two earlier, in the 1980s it begin to become ingrained in our living patterns and to reach out to the entire world. It has revolutionized the way we interact, and interaction is the key element of civilization. Despite all the changes that have taken place to date, we have only scratched the surface, and the only thing that seems certain is that it will have even greater impact as time and human creativity move forward.

Today, the Internet has made worldwide communication virtually instantaneous (contrast today with the time when communications between the U.S. and Europe were limited to the speed of a ship crossing the Atlantic). Not only has it accelerated communications, but it also links an enormous part of the world’s population. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that, currently, 74 percent of the inhabitants of North America have Internet access and roughly 25 percent of the world’s 6.7 billion people are actively using the technology.

Social interaction has been greatly influenced by services such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Some time ago I recall a statistic that indicated a significant portion of young people, when asked to name their best friend, gave the name of an individual that they had never met in person -- someone with whom they had befriended over the Internet. But it is more than just social interaction. The Obama campaign used the Internet extremely effectively to raise funds, generate volunteers, mobilize effort and change the way political campaigns operate. And the potential to collect opinions, votes and ideas is incredible.

Commercial activity has undergone an enormous change. Buying habits have been affected as sites like eBay and Craig’s List provide ways for people and business to interact directly. Sites like Amazon.com have challenged old retailing practices and made it easy to shop from home. The travel industry has been revolutionized, as people now directly book cars, planes and hotels, comparing large numbers of alternatives before they make their decisions. Comparative sites help consumers obtain low costs, or high quality or allow them to get a feel for the reliability of the companies with which they deal. The way the banking system operates, and the way payments are made yield even more examples of the way the Internet has changed our lives in just a few short decades. The list goes on and on.

Language skills have been affected, as English has continued to gain prominence as the “easiest” way to make sure that the capability of the technology to reach out to everyone is realized. But text messaging and sites like Twitter encourage shortcuts which are changing the way even that language is used. The role of libraries is being affected. The incredible access to on-line information has undermined their traditional role as most effective provider of research data. The growing trend towards delivering books, magazines and newspapers on-line provides a further challenge -- one, interestingly, that is seen here, as the Forsyth News shifts this column from it’s published newspaper to its Web site.

But all these changes come with a dire caveat. As the Internet becomes more integral to the basic elements of our society, the need to assure its reliability and integrity become more and more critical. Unfortunately, this is an area which seems to contain an enormous gap.

First, because everyone has access, much of the “information” provided on the Internet is of questionable value -- it doesn’t matter if you are doing academic research or just trying to find out what the President is really proposing with his health care plans. Separating the “accurate” from the “supposition” from the “fabrication” is becoming more and more difficult, particularly as people find that they can use the Internet to further their own causes and as they become more adept at presenting positions in ways that look authentic.

Second, the Internet provides a shield of anonymity behind which unscrupulous individuals can hide and, to date, act with almost impunity. Because it is so inexpensive to use, the economics of mass mailings and the gullibility of a very small section of our population still make it lucrative to run all kinds of scams. And then there are the people who invade the computers of others to surreptitiously gather information or to just have destructive fun by planting viruses.

I have a fairly effective junk mail filter. Today, before writing this article, I scanned the hundreds of messages that went into my junk mail box last week. I had multiple messages trying to sell me prescription medications, male enhancement products and knock-off watches, to name a few. I had emails informing me that I had won sweepstakes and telling me how I could earn millions by helping Nigerian officials remove money from that country. I had offers for “good times,” all kinds of sexually-oriented favors, and even part time work. But most insidious of all, I had numerous notices from the IRS (some threatening and others relating to tax rebates due me) and dozens from Chase Bank, Bank of America, Alliance Bank and others telling me of the need to stop my account from being closed, to collect funds that were paid in error, etc. Several messages threatened to close my PayPal account (which I don’t have).

All of this makes a point. When you talk about bringing honesty and integrity into the Internet, the typical responses include: government doesn’t have the time; there is no way to police what is going on; or just the old “caveat emptor.” Given the impact the Internet has (and will increasingly have) on our lives, we must find a way to make it “moral.” Government needs to make the time. With respect to those activities where someone plans to make money (through scams or by selling shoddy or contraband merchandise) there have to be channels back to the originators, or their objective could not be achieved. Organizations whose names are used in these schemes need to take action to stop the practices. People need to develop confidence that this incredible technology is being used in sound, productive and moral ways. Otherwise, the threat offered to the way we think and live is far from trivial. It’s time to recognize that the Internet is more than a tool of convenience. It will vitally impact the future of civilization.  

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.