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.