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The Internet – assessing its main social, political, and cultural impacts in America (Part Five)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 29, 2018

This series is based on a draft of a paper read at the “Media in America/America in Media” Conference (Lublin, Poland: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University), May 25-26, 2017.

The advance of the Internet can be looked at in terms of five main visions.

Corporate Net: Huge conglomerates like Time-Warner, Disney, DreamWorks, and Microsoft have all the resources to offer the most acclaimed kinds of Net products. According to this view, the Internet will become another vehicle to increase the social and cultural dominance of sports industries, the Hollywood entertainment complex, the rock and rap music, the fashion industry, video games and, of course, the “pornucopia”. All this will intensify consumerism. This is likely to end up with a world like that portrayed in Ridley Scott's haunting dark-future film Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), or in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (audaciously filmed by Stanley Kubrick), or with the antiseptic and soulless society of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Nerd Net: The Net does not really offer untold wealth and power to its participants. Rather, it often proffers to technonerds, wildly enraptured by the science fictional writings of cyberpunk guru William Gibson, an illusion of mastery. They play in their virtual environments and continually surf the Net in search of various kicks. The hacker elite flexes its muscles by implanting computer viruses or breaking into less or more important databases. One might well ask how much meaningful social change does this generate?

If computer users are indeed the brainless, flat-souled product of the current-day consumption-culture and educational system, no amount of neat software and information is going to improve them. Indeed, only those who are real personalities -- real “persons of spirit” -- to begin with, might start to have an impact. Only then might Gibson's vision -- in terms of the critical importance of “netrunners”, though hopefully not in terms of a heavily polluted, corporation-run world -- begin to have some substance.

Rightwing Net: According to some, the Net is teeming with all kinds of right-wing ideas that have been suppressed in North America's public and corporate cultures. Alternative right-wing communities and lobby groups can form on the Net. The economic transformations engendered by the electronic cottage are also interpreted by some as having a conservatizing edge. People will increasingly cocoon around their family home and not have the need to go to the big office towers downtown, thus starving the inner cities of their last major source of tax revenue. The final result of this intensifying disjunction may be a scenario portrayed in such sci-fi movies as Escape from New York (and its 1990s sequel, Escape from Los Angeles), where the urban hell-zones are walled off from the rest of the country.

New-Age Net: The Net is indeed central to the future. It is the place where a new planetary consciousness is being born. Young people all over the world are forging links that are, despite the heavy corporate presence, independent of the transnationals. The Net will finally translate the world-transforming ideas of the new social movements that arose in the Sixties, into a concrete, global-wide reality. Further down the road, there may emerge the possibility of “uploading” human consciousness into electronic form, which some have envisioned could be a state of a human mind totally willing its own reality. The possible perils of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality were explored in The Matrix film trilogy.

Fragmentation Net: The dislocations engendered by the Internet and the electronization of the world will constitute a profoundly trying time. Perhaps no one vision will ever triumph, and instability will become chronic. While the Net may encourage varied, high-level philosophical debate, it can also encourage varied kinds of depravity. One possible outcome might be a mentality seen in the Mad Max/Road Warrior movies — a “war of all against all”.

While these scenarios are somewhat hypothetical, something along these lines might occur if Americans fail in upholding the corrective functions of their political system. The obsession with technology, cyberspace, and the resultant social hyper-fragmentation could lead to the swallowing up of common public concern by an entertainment realm of images and illusions, and by various, ever more narrowly channeled, mutually unintelligible, micro-interests.

The result might well be an America unable to effectively deal with the rather more concrete local and global social and environmental questions, including serious threats from rogue regimes and groups, increasing disparities between rich and poor, overpopulation, mass immigration, the crisis of public and social morality, and global ecological collapse.

It could be argued that challenging the current-day managerial-therapeutic regime requires the persistence or creation of major social, cultural, and political infrastructures (such as, for example, various institutes, think-tanks, foundations, and effective publications) that can, to a large extent, be free of the current-day system’s informational, cultural – and indeed – financial chokehold on free thinking.

Whether the Internet can indeed become significantly enabling towards the creation of such infrastructures, remains to be seen. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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