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CNR: Alamanacco della Scienza


N. 19 - 5 dic 2012
ISSN 2037-4801

International info   a cura di Cecilia Migali


Looking at the Internet through the eyes of the future

Much criticism has been pinned on the network, based on economic, political and cultural assessments. In fact, there are grey clouds hanging over the development of the web. But the prospects that the new information and communication technologies have in terms of opening up our lives are so extraordinary that we should be positive and optimistic.

In recent times the Internet has not always had a good press. Indeed, on the net there is a good deal of bad news and criticism: from the dramatic drop in Facebook's stock value to the controversy between Samsung and Apple, to the accusation of the web promoting 'populist' movements. Legitimate questions, which often need asking, but which tend to focus only on the limitations and risks of a world which actually offers much greater potential.

We should look at the net with other eyes - with hope and openness - in order to take full advantage of the extraordinary and still almost entirely unexplored opportunities it offers for our future. Think of the many activities and daily operations that we can now divide into two distinct eras: 'before' and 'after' the Internet. Think of what the world was when there was no YouTube or technologies such as digital photography and mobile phones, it was a slow and arduous path to be able to see the images and videos of an event. Or researching and verifying a given piece of information, before they invented and developed Wikipedia and the other databases, archives, and online encyclopedias at our disposal today with a simple click.

But let's think above all about what there is still to be done. About the immense world of open access to transparent and free data on health care, services, politics, administration, research, education and training. The prospects that the new information and communication technologies present to open up our lives are so extraordinary that we should be positive and confident. This is why any user of the Web but especially operators must realize that they are the protagonists of a momentous upheaval.

In no way do we want to hide the problems that arise. In economic terms, there has been a backlash from the Facebook stock crisis but also from those of the other big companies in the sector, with losses of more than half of the initial value, so that some fear a new equity bubble. Significant reverberations have also been caused by the complex dispute between Samsung and Apple on the ownership of some of the functions of mobile phones, which could also involve other giants like Google and Microsoft: at stake here, along with big business, there is a 'philosophical' argument regarding the boundary between 'invention' and technological innovation.

This question is to some extent linked to copyright and the difficulties of ownership, in a network where the sharing of content occurs in dizzying quantities and speed. The problem of plagiarism, in turn, is connected to the reliability of the web, on which hang many doubts: in particular, it aroused 'scandalous' revelations on the purchase of fans on social networks by public figures and companies and frequent publications of exaggerated reviews, for which supposedly authoritative sites are being held to account.

In fact, these arguments do not involve the net per se, but its instrumental use or misuse, and therefore could be aimed at any means of communication, although the larger dimensions and interactivity of the Internet facilitate certain pathologies. Likewise, in terms of the entrepreneurial aspect, the oligopolistic concentrations on the web are similar to those that condition the car market, energy or traditional media.

There has also been much talk that, at a sociological level, the fears that the immense amount of information provided by the network will facilitate the Dunning-Kruger effect, i.e. arrogant incompetence, the easy risk of falling into banality. On a psychological level, on the other hand, there are those who fear that 2.0 and social networking incentives, especially among the most vulnerable, will lead to illusory, fatuous relationships, a kind of crowded loneliness. This discussion leads us to a political outlook which has also been the subject of some recent criticism. The network promotes the creation of 'populist' movements, which take hold through demagogic messages, but are unable to create valid alternatives and hindered by their internal reliance on a charismatic leader and perhaps by the lack of an effective democratic set up.

The heat has been turned up in this controversy, with plenty of finger-pointing between representatives of the 'traditional' parties and leaders of those forces and members that demand a rapid upheaval of leadership by leveraging on the aggregative ability of the new media. 'Digital demagogy', 'political grapevine', 'provocative and manipulative' are some expressions used in the context of this controversy regarding 'grassroots' or 'liquid' democracy.

These questions on the network are not only legitimate, but also inevitable. The development that the Ict has seen in the last few years and the impact that it has on our lives is so dramatic that it could be seen as one of the greatest revolutions in human history, on a par with those caused by other major scientific, technological and industrial discoveries of the past. To question it is therefore only right, but this should not be done only by focusing on the limitations and risks of a process that is inevitably complex and cumbersome.