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9 May 2015

The Perils of the Internet

Tag(s): Business, Environment, Future, Innovation, Networking, Sustainability, Politics & Economics, Technology
As we wake up to the potential chaos of the collective decision we voters in the Barely United Kingdom have made in the General Election I turn to something even more dangerous: the Internet. It may be ironic that I choose to comment on this through the medium of the Internet. There is no doubt that the Internet has brought many good things, but overall I fear that the bad outweighs the good and the really important point is that it is out of control. Here is my list of ten things to fear:

1. Global warming
Everyone knows that when they drive a car or take a plane journey they are contributing to the increase in global warming caused by carbon emissions. However, few it seems realise that their use of the Internet has the same effect. It seems that most people buy the idea that the Internet is “virtual” and that they can store their data in a “cloud”. These terms are extremely misleading. The Internet is a physical network of servers all consuming energy and throwing off heat and carbon emissions. The exponential increase in the volume of data circulating this network is seeing a vast increase in these carbon emissions. The biggest cause of this is the growth in the use of video on the Internet. Huge numbers of people use services like YouTube particularly on mobile devices. According to the latest edition of the Cisco Visual Networking Index global Internet traffic is expected to increase threefold in the next five years following fourfold growth in the previous five.[i] This year Cisco predicts that global IP traffic will hit 1.0 zettabytes per year. This is not virtual but physical and corresponds to massive emissions of greenhouse gases. A single search using Google releases 0.2 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere according to Google’s own figures. [ii] One estimate I saw was that by 2020 the Internet would account for 20% of global emissions compared with 2% for air travel, but that estimate was made back in 2009 and the use of data centres has multiplied much faster since then. This is urgent but out of control.

2. The Internet of Things
In the concept of the Internet of Things everything will be joined up. This will transform the way we live and work but we cannot know if the benefits will outweigh the dangers. Marc Goodman points out “For all the untold benefits of the Internet of Things, its potential downsides are colossal. Adding 50 billion new objects to the global information grid by 2020 means that each of these devices, for good or ill, will be able to potentially interact with the other 50 bn connected objects on earth. The result will be 2.5 sextillion[iii] potential networked object-to-object interactions – a network so vast and complex it can scarcely be understood or modelled. The IoT will be a global network of unintended consequences and black swan events, ones that will do things nobody ever planned. In this world it is impossible to know the consequences of connecting your home’s networked blender to the same information grid as an ambulance in Tokyo, a bridge in Sydney, or a Detroit auto manufacturer’s production line.”[iv]

3. Monopolisation
During every minute of every day in 2014 the world’s three billion Internet users sent 204 million mails, undertook four million Google searches, shared 2.46 million pieces of Facebook content, published 277,000 tweets, posted 216,000 new photos on Instagram and spent $83,000 on Amazon.[v] Andrew Keen, in his book The Internet is Not the Answer, argues that the net was meant to bring “power to the people, a platform for equality.” Instead it has handed extraordinary power and wealth to a handful of people, while simultaneously, for the rest of us, compounding existing inequalities – cultural, social and economic. Individually, it may work wonders for us. Collectively, it’s doing no good at all.” It naturally leads to monopolies. Its chief characteristic is “winner takes all”. Google, which now handles 3.5 billion searches daily and controls more than 90% of the market in some countries, including Britain, is valued at $363 billion – more than six times General Motors, which employs nearly four times as many people. Facebook, the world’s second biggest Internet site, used by 19% of people in the world, 50% of whom access it nearly every day, is valued at $230bn, more than Coca-Cola, Disney and AT&T. Uber, started five years ago and employing just 1,000 people is valued at $40bn, twice the value of Hertz and Avis combined. Airbnb, employing just 700 people, is valued at $20bn, equivalent to the Hilton Group which owns nearly 4,000 hotels and employs 150,000 people. The messaging app WhatsApp, bought by Facebook for $19bn, employs just 55. The Internet is a perfect global platform for free-market capitalism – a pure, frictionless, borderless, economy. Imagine it is 100 years ago, and the post office, the phone company, the public libraries, the printing houses, Ordnance Survey maps and the cinemas were all controlled by the same secretive and unaccountable organisation. That’s Google, and “it doesn’t just own the post office- it has the right to open everyone’s letters.”

4. The Death of the High Street
This tendency to monopolisation is particularly acute in retailing. A 2013 American survey found that while it takes, on average, a regular bricks-and-mortar store 47 employees to generate $10m in turnover, Amazon achieves the same with 14. The individual consumer loves Amazon because it’s convenient to order from your home and to receive the goods in a couple of days at your home. But the economics of this don’t add up. Amazon lost $500m last year. One senior retailer I know has challenged his suppliers to show him how to make money with his online offer. Noone has accepted the challenge. Instead of millions of consumers driving their cars or taking a bus or, heaven forfend, walking to their local stores,  we have thousands of delivery vans making deliveries of tiny quantities. It isn’t just the book shops that are disappearing. Amazon wants to sell everything and everyone is suffering.

5. Economic decline
All over the world growth in the economy is sluggish or non-existent. There are many reasons for this, the misbehaviour of the banks, poor management of public finances, ludicrous decisions by central banks, demographics, wars etc. But another key reason is the destructive forces of the Internet.  When retailers like Woolworth and HMV stopped selling records not all that business went online. Amazon is driving down prices for the benefit of its customers but that entire margin has been sucked out of the economy and all those jobs have been destroyed. According to one recent report 7,500 retailing jobs in the UK are at risk as 200 out of town stores will be closed this year by the supermarkets and DIY chains.[vi] Airbnb destroys hotel jobs. Uber destroys taxi driving jobs.

6. The Death of Creative Industries
When everyone, including me, can write a blog, why would you pay to read anything anymore? Young people seem to think it’s perfectly OK to download content illegally for free. When there’s no exchange of cash for your article, your photograph, your film, your book, your song how else are you going to make money if you’re a creative artist. The number of photographers’ jobs in the US has fallen by 43%; the number of newspaper editorial jobs by 27%. In Britain a third of newspaper editorial jobs have been lost since 2001. The US singer-songwriter Ellen Shipley calculated in 2012 that one of her most popular tracks was streamed 3.1 million times on the internet radio Pandora, for which she received the princely sum of $31.93, roughly a dollar for every 100,000 hits. Publishing houses, record labels, newspapers are run by people who care about quality content. They’re being swept away and being replaced by anonymous people spreading rumours, and celebrities, with millions of followers, selling their brand.

7. The Death of Innovation
In the 20th century a small number of inventors and scientists – often working in isolation with limited funding- gave the world the car, radio, atomic power, cinema, antibiotics, television, aeroplanes, computers, air-conditioning and the Internet. In the 21st century millions of scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers – all connected by the Internet – should be able to give us tremendous scientific and economic progress. So far all we’ve had are the relatively useless Facebook and WhatsApp. In the US job numbers are lower; productivity is down, particularly in manufacturing and construction. The position is no better in the UK.[vii]

8. Cybercrime
Politicians like to quote crime statistics to say that crime is down. But I think it’s just moved online. The same characteristics of the internet that allow unregulated businesses to grow from nothing to destroy established regulated categories apply to crime. This comes from Interpol’s own website[viii]:

“Cybercrime is a fast growing area of crime. More and more criminals are exploiting the speed, convenience and anonymity of the internet to commit a diverse range of criminal activities that know no borders, either physical or virtual. New trends in cybercrime are emerging all the time, with costs to the global economy running to billions of dollars.

In the past cybercrime was committed mainly by individuals or small groups. Today, we are seeing criminal organisations working with criminally minded technology professionals to commit cybercrime, often to fund other illegal activities. Highly complex, these cybercriminal networks bring together individuals from across the globe in real time to commit crimes on an unprecedented scale.

Criminal organisations are turning increasingly to the Internet to facilitate their activities and maximise their profit in the shortest time. The crimes themselves are not necessarily new – such as theft, fraud, illegal gambling, sale of fake medicines – but they are evolving in line with the opportunities presented online and therefore becoming more widespread and damaging.”

For the burglar it’s a no-brainer. Why go to the trouble of breaking and entering with all the risks involved when you can achieve much more from the safety of your desk top computer?  And cybercrime does not include all the crimes facilitated by the internet, as when, for example, the terrorist downloads the recipe for making a bomb.

9. Angry people
Last weekend my wife and I visited Lincoln Castle to see one of the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta. I’ll blog about Magna Carta around the 800th anniversary of its sealing in June but while we were there we learnt that in the 18th and 19th centuries public hangings were seen as a form of popular entertainment. People would travel for miles to see the show. The hangman would cut up the rope into small pieces and go around the pubs at night to sell these as souvenirs – hence the expression – ‘money for old rope.’ But eventually decency prevailed and the hangings were held in private with just a few witnesses in attendance. Public shaming had largely died out until the arrival of the Internet but now it is rife on social media. Trolls hide behind anonymity to bombard otherwise innocent people who may have committed some minor blunder. Death threats are common. So are suicides.[ix]

10. The Internet is Rewiring your Brain
In 2010 Author Nicholas Carr wrote, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”[x] Some might think the online world helps us to adapt to become better multi-taskers, all while we still maintain critical thinking skills. Here are four uncomfortable facts:[xi]
  1. The Internet may give you an addict’s brain. MRI research has shown that the brains of Internet users who have trouble controlling their craving to be constantly plugged-in exhibit changes similar to those seen in people addicted to drugs and alcohol. This is particularly a problem for online gambling which has exploded.
  2. You may feel more lonely and jealous. Social media make it easier to connect with others, but recent research by German scientists suggests that constantly viewing images of others’ vacation photos, personal achievements, etc. can trigger strong feelings of envy, even sadness. Researchers have even described the phenomenon as ‘Facebook depression’.
  3. Internet use may heighten suicide risk in certain teens. Based on a review of previous research on studies on teens’ Internet use, researchers at Oxford University concluded that online time is linked to an increased risk of suicide and self-harm among vulnerable adolescents.
  4. Memory problems may be more likely. A 2009 Stanford University study shows that the brains of people who are constantly bombarded with several streams of electronic information may find it difficult to pay attention and switch from one job to another efficiently. The recent proposal to allow pupils to use an online browser in the examination room is a scandal.
So what’s to be done? At the individual level one can take all this into account, limit one’s reliance on and exposure to the Internet. I, for one, have never used Facebook or Twitter and never will. Nor will I use Uber or Airbnb. Does that make me a Luddite? Well the Luddites’ concern was for humanity rather than to stand in the way of progress. And that should still be our concern today. But I’ll carry on blogging.

[iii] 10³6, i.e. 1 followed by 36 zeros
[v] The Internet is Not the Answer Andrew Keen
[vi] 7,500 jobs at risk as retailers shut stores Graham Ruddick The Sunday Telegraph 5th April 2015
[vii] America’s 21st-century flop. Bill Bonner. Moneyweek 17th April 2015
[ix] So you’ve been publicly shamed Jon Ronson Picador
[x] The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our  Brain” Nicholas Carr 2010
[xi] This is how the Internet is rewiring your brain. The Huffington Post 30th October, 2013

 Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved


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