So what’s the big deal with this Internet thing, anyway? Technology historian and writer Naughton (Vice President/Wolfson Coll., Cambridge; A Brief History of the Future, 2000) provides a mostly convincing answer.
Former Talking Heads frontman and author David Byrne has lately been pointing out that the Internet is a terrible thing for music and culture, largely due to the fact that it’s made it impossible to sell what can be freely stolen—beg pardon, downloaded. Naughton takes a more forgiving view, invoking the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction, which requires…well, destruction. In the case of the Internet, part of what is being destroyed is an old economy, though, as Naughton notes, in the case of the musical economy, it could have worked out differently had the record companies not been so greedy. And part, more ominously, are old ideas of freedom and privacy: “For governments of all political stripes—from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies—the Internet is a surveillance tool made in heaven, because much of the surveillance can be done, not by expensive and fallible human beings, but by computers.” You are your clickstream, and therein, it must be noted, as Naughton does, lie Orwellian possibilities. Along the way, the author makes good points on the history of various Internet stalwarts, not least of them Facebook, and notes how the Internet defies some of the fundamental principles of economics, especially scarcity, since the Internet is an embarrassment of riches and too-muchness, if also an engine of decentralization.
Most of this will come as no news to those familiar with, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Jaron Lanier, but Naughton’s optimism and easily worn learning makes this a pleasure to read.