Hardly another day goes by without some explosive report in the news about modern Internet platforms and their adverse effects on our personal lives or on our political or economic systems. But with our personal and professionals lives so deeply intertwined with them, going “off the grid” is hardly an answer. How do we preserve what is good about our networked lives while trying to identify and eliminate the bad? I do not have answers but hope to raise discussion on the question.
Even though I am way too old to be a “digital native,” computers and the Internet have played a large role in my personal and professional life for several decades. I received my first Internet email address in the late 1980s as a postdoctoral fellow. I often tell the story of my jaw dropping the first time I saw the graphical Web browser, NCSA Mosiac, in 1992. While I had read articles about this new World Wide Web, I was initially skeptical because I could not envision the Internet of the time being able to support interaction (e.g., downloading and rendering Web pages) in real-time. But seeing Mosaic made me instantly realize how transformative the Web would be. Fastforwarding a few years, with the emergence of Google, I sometimes joke that my life would be very different had I come up with the idea of ranking Web search output by links in my own information retrieval research. At the end of the decade, a seemingly minor decision to put my course online in 1999 led to a major transformation of my career into a passion for educational technology. Now in modern times, my personal life has fused with Facebook, in which I can easily share parts of my life with family, friends, and colleagues. In addition, most of my teaching is online, I enjoy sharing running routes with fellow runners, and the ubiquitous worldwide reach of cellular and wifi makes travel and just about everything else much easier.
But clearly there are downsides to the Internet and the proliferation of all of our computational devices, including all of our data they hold, that are connected to it. The biggest current news, of course, is the manipulation of social media and search engines by the Russian government. Right behind that are other concerns about the business practices of Facebook and how they selectively share our data, especially with certain business partners. There are also concerns about the ease by which hate groups disseminate content to their followers, for example on YouTube and Twitter. Another worry is the growing commerce monopoly of Amazon, despite the fact many of us find it so convenient for many things we need. There is also the growing concern about what is done with the detailed digital activities of ours that are tracked and used, sometimes for good but other times not.
The solutions to these problems are not easy. Sure, we can try to maintain a balance between our real and virtual lives. We can consider more regulation of these platforms, but I get nervous when we discuss regulating free speech. The question is how to discern between freedom of expression versus not allowing manipulation of news and elections by “bots” and other approaches. Education is certainly important, making sure the general population understands how these platforms work and how they can be used to manipulate public and political opinion. There is also the question of how to economically regulate these platforms that achieve monopoly status. There is no question that these issues will attract further attention from the new media, lawmakers, and others going forward.