The Future of the Internet: Promises and Perils

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The internet and social media have created conditions that humans have never experienced before. The inter-connectedness has blurred all boundaries. But as modern human beings, we should stop and ask what it means to our lives. There is no doubt that the internet and social media have instilled both hopes and fears in modern life. What are they?

people from diverse nationalities working on their gardgets.
The internet was supposed to facilitate communication but ironically it has lead to isolation. (Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

The Perils of Internet and Social Media

The internet is known to be addictive, leading to compulsive overuse. The early users of Facebook experienced trance-like feelings that immersed them in the experience rendering them unable to stop.

Another threat of social media is the expansion of exhibitionism and narcissism.  Of course, these conditions are present in the offline world, too. But we might end up with blogs with no readers and people showing their personal qualities more and more without any effects or audience.

Are we going to become lonelier with superficial relationships through the Internet?

There is a notion called an “internet paradox” that shows internet usage leads to more profound loneliness. Is the online world transforming the standard forms of interaction that have been around throughout history?

Another concern is that the internet and digital technology could have the potential to rewire our brains. Changes in reading habits are attributed to the internet, changes like reduced attention spans and scanning instead of reading the materials deeply.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Cultural Concerns about Modern Technology

Are e-books replacing the traditional hard copies? For example, in 2012 the sales of e-books surpassed those of printed books. Some might argue that e-books can lead to growth in reading.

A girl is drinking tea or coffee while reading a book.
E-books are replacing printed books and some believe it could lead to more reading. (Image: LOGVINYUK YULIIA/Shutterstock)

Online data is growing overwhelmingly and doesn’t seem to stop. In 2011, it was estimated that by 2020, data would increase 40 times. According to optimists, people are adapting to these challenges. Younger generations are referred to as “digital natives” who have grown up in the digital world.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s print revolution.

This generation has no problem using social media. The older generations are called “digital immigrants,” meaning they might be able to partially adapt to this world, but not completely. According to some experts, educational systems should also adjust their methods to cater to the needs of digital natives.

The threats of the Internet for our Security

Another peril is the power that the internet gives criminals and terrorists to perform destructive and dangerous acts. Cyberbullying, identity theft, and deception in the online world are widespread everywhere.

The Computer Made the Development of the Internet Possible Cybersecurity, computer hacker with hoodie and obscured face, computer code overlaying image
The internet has created amicable conditions for criminals. (Image: igorstevanovic/Shutterstock)

Cyber-attacks and cyberwars have also been on the rise. In 2007 and 2008, Russian computers attached Estonia and Georgia during international conflicts. The same problem exists within countries. States use new technology to keep people under close observation or limit their access to information.

A frequently mentioned example is efforts made by the Chinese government to block websites that it deems unsuitable for people to access. These efforts are called the “Great Firewall of China.” At the same time, there is a notion called the “dictator’s dilemma.” In today’s world, blocking access to the internet means cutting relations with the rest of the world. It can lead to economic problems, which in turn cause dissatisfaction and rebellion. Being online is an indispensable part of the modern world.

Perhaps it is too early to investigate the influence of the Internet and digital media on authority. We still do not know if the territorial sovereignty that has been around since 1648 and the introduction of the Westphalian system still exists. All borders are fading away, thanks to the Internet. There might be new waves of changes in technology that aim at suppressing people. But it is not clear if people have enough power to escape these waves.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

Technology: Past and Future

The internet and the world it has created is unprecedented in history. But there are some older aspects, such as print culture and media that the internet empowers. Encyclopedic knowledge is another aspect that we have had before. Diderot’s idea of Encyclopédie was the result of his passion for offering useful knowledge to all people.

The internet has a global reach which is again not a new idea. The voyages of Zheng He and Columbus, the trading ventures of the East India Companies, and powered flight all were pursuing the notion of global reach. The future of technology is not predictable. Some thinkers have proposed the notion of singularity. We are experiencing a unique period, and we cannot predict what will happen after that. It is yet to be seen if the internet can realize H.G. Wells’ idea of the ‘World Brain’.

Common Questions about the Future of the Internet: Promises and Perils

Q: What is the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants?

Digital natives, the young generation, have grown up with technology. They do not have any problems in adapting themselves to the new technology. Digital immigrants are the older generation who can be more or less successful in adjusting to technology, but not completely.

Q: What are the security threats of the internet?

The internet allows criminals and terrorists to perform destructive and dangerous acts. Cyberbullying, identity theft, and deception in the online world are widespread crimes.

Q: What is the Great Firewall of China?

The Great Firewall of China refers to the intensifying efforts of the Chinese government to block websites that it deems unsuitable for people to access. These efforts are made both by technology and legislation.

Q: What is the internet paradox?

The internet paradox is the notion that postulates human beings are getting lonelier as the role of the internet and social media grows in our lives. It is a paradox because the internet is supposed to be a means of communication.

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