Who will rule our virtual world?

The Promise and the Threat of the Internet - a thoughtful essay from E.L. Doctorow via The Nation.


...The World Wide Web was conceived as a somewhat academic resource some years ago, but its years of development since the 1980s have seemed to me the work of a moment, coming into being with the force of an astronomical event. Here was this virtual world, a companion planet in orbital swing with our own. And its stuff, its substance, was not mountains and seas and deserts and melting icebergs, but information, data, knowledge in every form, of every kind, transmitted for every purpose, personal, governmental, commercial, educational, political. It is a companion world mined to create wealth, to educate, to bring news, to spy, to save lives, to make war. But my odd sense of it as something that exploded instantly into being has to do with a population putting itself eagerly into its arcane service, as emigrants swearing fealty to a new world—the techies, the programmers, webmasters, security experts, hackers—as if, with its appearance, it created the people necessary to maintain it. And you wonder, what if there was no Internet, what would these people have done with their lives? It was as if they were born for the virtual, so promptly and efficiently did they bond with it, work out its kinks and deduce its possibilities.

...So, can we expect from the Internet's meta-brain infinite manifestations of human genius and human perfidy? I think so. It is a complex structure, available to all sorts of applications and misapplications. Like any web, it can wrap itself around you. If there's an algorithmic breakthrough that shows us how to reduce pollution, for example, there is also an algorithm for the quantification of persons into data. Wherein everything we do, our predilections, our relations with others, our physical qualities and psychic conditions, our political beliefs, what we buy, what doctors we see, what movies we watch, what books we read, if any—anything and everything about us broken down into data, the life substance of the companion world in cyberspace mined in invasive expeditions in the name of commerce and government surveillance—for the use of corporations and excited police departments. You can call it quantification—in the 1960s, we called it reification. A means of dehumanizing. And it turns out that the prophetic story for all of this is, oddly enough, that eviction story from the Bronze Age telling of the consequences from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. So like all worlds, the virtual comes with its heaven and its hell.

...You may have read a few days ago the results of a survey conducted by PEN: not only that American writers worry about being the target of government surveillance, but that "a significant portion of writers are engaging in self-censorship by avoiding research on certain controversial topics, choosing not to engage in sensitive conversations, and declining to pursue particular topics and stories when doing so might lead to scrutiny by the US government."

So it has begun. That slowly gathering, ghostly darkness coming off the 
otherworld technology. A kind of China-like darkness, maybe. Or call it a first look into the Internet world's hell. It's hard to believe as we assemble here this evening, a flourishing example of Western democracy. But the struggle has begun as to who will rule that webby other world—government data miners and the corporations in step with them, or everyone else? We'll have to pull ourselves together and, reluctantly or not, join that struggle.