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At What Cost?

Jun 6, 2008
There has been much ado lately about the potential freedoms created by the new age of communication evinced by the Internet. People are mainly focused on the newness of it all; how modern technology is changing all the rules, but this idea has actually been around as long as we've been creating new things. Every new technological innovation leads inevitably to the discussion of new freedoms. Basic freedom from the limitations imposed by the old technology to freedom based on paradigm shifts in our society enabled by the new technology. Electricity, the automobile, radio, the airplanethe list goes on and on; each of them bringing major changes in our lives, our language, and our perception of the world.

With each new innovation there is a renewed sense of hope that this one will set us free...from something. Free from household drudgery or free from cubicles and traffic jams or free from the earthly bonds of gravity. For example, thanks to modern technology, in the course of writing this article I have travelled from one side of the country to the other and back again. Right now I am enjoying an iced tea at a sidewalk caf in Phoenix and by the time I finish this article I expect to be in Seattle. I am free to do my work from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Every day I work with people all over the country and I haven't seen a cubicle (at least not one that is mine) in many months.

But, at what cost? Freedom is never free whether we're speaking of grand-scale freedoms like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or small-scale freedoms like not having to go into the office today. By giving me the ability to connect to my coworkers and customers alike from wherever I happen to be, the Internet has afforded me greater independence but it has cost me my private time. Because there is the capability to always be connected wherever I go there is now the expectation that I am always available. The question is, is it worth giving up the distinction between when you are at work and when you aren't for greater latitude in how and where we do our work?

Apparently, the answer depends at least in part on how old you are. Younger people that have spent a greater percentage of their lives "hooked in" tend to deal with the lack of privacy afforded by the Internet with, if you will pardon my saying so, a certain wild abandon; whether due to an enhanced sense of openness nurtured by constant contact with the rest of the world or simply naive innocence I do not know. Older folk, more accustomed to dealing with the results of man's darker nature, tend to look at such openness with uneasiness and even suspicion.

The iGeneration is likely to have spent a significant fraction of their life on the Internet by the time they reach a point in the generational cycle where they are determining the political structure of the planet. The Internet will become such an integrated and accepted part of our culture that the distinction between what is "online" and what is "offline" will be mainly philosophical. Using the Internet to accomplish things once thought of as too sensitive in nature to be subjected to the potential scrutiny of the public will not only be accepted, it will be assumed.

Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to assume that the Internet will eventually become the medium of choice to aid in democratic elections. People could easily vote every day on countless topics allowing for true government by the people. On the surface this would seem to be a utopian vision of a true democracy, but like all utopian views there is trouble lurking just out of view. Just ask any marketing maventhe majority of people are easily swayed to a desired belief particularly where there is lack of knowledge or background on the subject. Emotional appeals and slick advertising can easily sway large blocks of people. Politics and government will become nothing more than a massive marketing exercise. The creators of our Constitution felt the same way which is why we have a representative republic instead of a democracy.

It's not that people electing their government through democratic voting all over the world would be bad; far from it. However, the ease of Internet-based voting could quickly lead to voting for everything. Every resolution, every question of any political import will be put to a vote. Politicians will learn to abstain from all responsibility for any question that could possibly reflect poorly on them, leaving it "up to the people". If you think that sounds like a good idea, try picturing a high school in which all administrative decisions are left up to the students.

The Internet in its ubiquity and ease of access has the capability of being the technological breakthrough that finally sets the masses free, giving everyone an equal voice in the body politic. We are already seeing the early signs of these kinds of transformations taking place across the globe. The question is, is it worth it?
About the Author
Dan Scott is a Computer Scientist with over 25 years of experience developing, building, and supporting computers and information systems. Make sure you see his web hosting reviews covering the top affordable web hosting providers.
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