The Internet Smog Descends
But promises of a technological Utopia have been common in American history, and at least a few champions of the Internet are aware of how naive these earlier visions were. Silicon Valley has some of the most congested real highways in the country, as people commute to work with a technology that Henry Ford invented to reduce urban congestion. Most people have some sense of the fact that the automobile did not fulfill many of Ford’s promises simply because it was too successful. The word “smog” crept into the English language around the time of Ford’s death in the late 1940s; “gridlock,” “strip malls,” and “suburban sprawl” came later. What equivalent will describe the dark side of networked digital computing? And will those “side effects” become evident only fifty years from now, as was the case with automobiles? Can we anticipate them before it is too late or too difficult to manage them?
This book was written in 1998 and the answer couldn’t be more absolute: it didn’t take 50 years and also we weren’t able to anticipate the problems before they happened.
This idea that a new technology will solve a problem once and for all is quite common. Kevin Kelly brings up many examples of this in his book, What Technology Wants. A few examples mentioned include:
- Alfred Nobel thought dynamite would prevent all future wars
- The telephone was supposed to connect everyone and would push us towards a common language and thus a common understanding
- Tesla thought wireless power would bring world peace (if Apple’s AirPower ever ships, it might though)
The list goes on and the internet today is certainly not excluded.
This comparison of the internet to cars is a compelling one. While the Industrial Revolution is probably a better comparison, it is a more distant one mentally. It is hard to imagine the world that long ago but it isn’t as hard to imagine the world before cars.
The History of Smog
In 1943, Los Angeles experienced a particularly bad smog event. It was so alarming to the LA locals that they thought it was another World War II attack by Japan. This was only 1.5 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor so it isn’t that much of a stretch to attribute air that burned your throat with a chemical attack.
It took no convincing of people that this smog was a problem. The difficult part, however, was in deducing what was causing this nasty air.
It wasn’t determined that cars were the primary cause of smog until 10 years later. Arie Jan Haagen-Smit was a chemist that started researching the air of Southern California in the late 1940s. His paper published in 1952 titled Chemistry and Physiology of Los Angeles Smog linked the air quality to the exhaust of cars.
Through the 50s and 60s, smog continued to get worse across all of Los Angeles. Haagen-Smit’s paper had enough persuasion that activists were organizing to pressure companies and the government. Automakers, as you can imagine, pushed back.
Eventually Congress passed the first Clean Air Act in 1963 which led to the first laws for controlling air quality. It was later refined in 1970 to increase the laws around emissions.
Five years later in 1975 was the year that all cars were required to be manufactured with catalytic converters which reduced the amount of car based smog.
It seems entirely possible that there are some completely normal and fundamental pillars of the internet that are indeed smog producing but we just don’t know it yet. Or even more dangerous, we won’t be able to see it as easily as the LA residents when the smog showed up.
Here are some particular issues that come to my mind in recent times that hint at the Internet’s more sinister side:
Social media use has an increased risk of suicide and is especially dangerous for teenagers.
Commenting on news articles used to be a given and was one of the superpowers of the internet. In the last few years, this has slowly been removed.
Political polarization is something else that is possibly tied to the proliferation of the internet. Some data suggests this the case but the underlying reason is probably more complicated though.
Trending topics are increasingly used to change public sentiment which was seen in 2016 and since then. Facebook removed their trending topics just last year.
There are many signs of these underlying issue(s) of the internet. It’s hard to know if there is an absolute principle that we just haven’t discovered yet that could be solved with a catalytic converter-like solution or if the issue will just be a messy one with no definitive answer.
Kevin Kelly also brought up car crashes in his book. A million people die in car crashes every year. The internet used to be called the “Information Superhighway” due to the ability to access the world’s information instantly. Is this increased risk of suicide just the side effect of being able to drive at 100mph through all this information?
The internet touches many aspects of our lives and the surface area is only increasing. It already affects far more than cars ever could. There is a huge risk in not solving these problems before it is too late.
It took 30 years to identify the issue of smog and to fix the car, the primary offender. How long will it take to identify and agree upon what is causing this Internet Smog? Will it be easy to understand or will it be indecipherable like some machine learning models?
Even after we all agree what the problem with the Internet is, it’s only then that we can solve it. This may turn out to be the hardest part.