Our liberator, the internet

History can be neatly divided into two eras: Before Internet (BI) and After Internet (AI). Some of us were unlucky enough to be alive in the BI dark ages, and let me tell you: things were bad back then. How bad? Eric Schmidt describes the terribleness of the BI epoch well in an op-ed in today’s Financial Times. Back then, you see, “access to the world’s information – and the ability to communicate it – was controlled by the wealthy and the well educated.” Back then, we had no choice but “to take what business, the media or indeed politicians say at face value.” Back then, we “waited to be told what the news was.” People couldn’t conceive of “actually commenting on events themselves.” We were “controlled” by the media.

It’s so true. A mere decade ago, we were all stupid, docile sheep. We believed everything the rich and powerful told us. We were force-fed our thoughts by “the media.” We didn’t have opinions of our own – or if we did, we certainly didn’t voice them. It was horribly oppressive.

Fortunately, though, the internet arrived to lift us up out of the mire of ignorance and voicelessness, to liberate us. As Schmidt writes, “the democratization of information has empowered us all as individuals.” Today – for the first time ever! – people “are actually commenting on events themselves.” It is nothing less than “the liberation of end users.”

As a liberated end user myself, let me just say that this is a load of crap. Schmidt goes on in his op-ed to argue against governmental controls over the internet and, in particular, over access to the internet through cell phones. Those are worthy arguments. But why does he find it necessary to distort history, insult the intelligence of pretty much everyone, and demean the work of all traditional journalists before he gets around to making his point? Why does he feel compelled to repaint the past in the darkest possible colors? I guess it’s to create an illusion of perfect progress, a new liberation mythology.

What makes this dangerous instead of just silly is that people and, in particular, policymakers may buy into it. After arguing for giving more people in more countries internet access through their phones – again, a worthy enough argument – Schmidt concludes by writing this characteristic bit of utopian overreaching: “The prize is a world in which every human being starts life with the same access to information, the same opportunities to learn and the same power to communicate.” There’s no need, in other words, to put a priority on further investments in school buildings and teachers and textbooks and libraries. Just give every kid a web-enabled mobile phone and – poof! – nirvana.

10 thoughts on “Our liberator, the internet

  1. Anonymous

    Nick, for probably less than $ 500 a year (and your time) you now have an audience from around the world. Could you have even 5 years ago. It would have cost you 1000X more if it could be done at all – the reader infrastucture was not ready either. Of course, the web is still a middle class phenomenon around the world …but with shared computers in villages, the mobile web, Negropointe’s $ 100 PC who knows…

    Look at the grassroots information flow unleashed in China and Middle East because of the web. Leaders pretend their populations still listen to state propoganda. We complain about their censorship. I celebrate the fact that they need to censor – the impact is being felt.

    Eric may be somewhat self-serving but things have evolved dramatically in last few years

  2. Majied

    Thanks for your opinions on the Schmidt piece Nick – saved me the bother of actually reading it. Or forming a thought of my own for once.

    Continue cheerfully being part of the problem!

  3. Sid Steward

    I, for one, do worry how well investigative journalism can survive. It’s not profitable enough to stand on its own, in these days of a’la carte media. The path to profit seems to point away from it. And, no, a few searches on Google isn’t “investigative” (even if it’s a huge leg up).

  4. dermot casey


    “By typing just a few key words into a computer it is possible to find out about almost any subject.”

    True. Not really possible to understand it in the same time.

    If a cynic is “a person who understands to price of everything and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde) what does that make Schmidt who here understand the value of some things but the price of nothing?


  5. Gianni


    while I do agree that Schmidt is using only 16 bits for his color palette, you are swinging IMHO right in the other direction.

    The fact that some journalists have ever abused their power, have misreported a fact, have quoted people out of context is for me good enough a reason to have “some other system” (call it Web 2.0, call it Consumer Generated Media) as an alternative source.

    I like it. Your behaviour shows you do, too

  6. Anonymous

    “Nick, for probably less than $ 500 a year (and your time) you now have an audience from around the world. Could you have even 5 years ago. It would have cost you 1000X more if it could be done at all – the reader infrastucture was not ready either.”

    Have we all forgotten syndicated columnists already??

  7. Eric Bernhard

    I agree with you Nick, I think there are a few things we are forgetting about the dissemination of information. Books, articles, journals, libraries, word of mouth, story telling, lectures, conferences and conversations; all of them do the same thing as disseminate information from one person to another. All the internet has begun to do is digitize those conversations, books, articles, journals. All this information was out there before you just needed o go to your local library. Look at the bible, probably the most widely know book on the face of the earth (other than IT Doesn’t matter of course), how was the information within that book communicated to millions of people…Even in BI times you could search its content (talk to a priest or someone that studied the book), you could listen to peoples opinions on it and you could form your own opinion about it. That is really what this is about, how you as an individual or group of individuals get your ideas and opinions out there for everyone to see or hear. Has the internet changed how that happens, sure, but I’m not sure it was/is a revolution.

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    Anonymous: There’s no hype is saying “Things have changed a little bit, in an evolutionary, incremental fashion, with a few losers and few gainers, but overall the world is spinning pretty much as it always has”.

    It’s got to be REVOLUTION!!! All different, all NEW!!! and IMPROVED!!! Nothing ever like it before, unique in history ….

    The resemblance to the carnival barker come-on is not accidental.

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