Digital Kayak

Our Silicon Idolatry

Instead of finding facts and getting answers, perhaps we should be asking questions.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published December 14, 2005

Many take for granted the idea that freedom and the World Wide Web are partners. They hold up the success of the Web in helping people find information, share thoughts and ideas, and collaborate with one another as a shining example of freedom through technology.

This is just the beginning. Most people still think of Google as merely a way to search the Web. But Google's stated mission is far more than that: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". Their pace as they race toward that goal continues to quicken.

The growth in do-it-yourself online publishing, like this magazine and myriad blogs, is explosive. Technorati, the blog indexing service, reports that the number of blogs online doubles every 5.5 months. As of July this year, 80,000 new blogs were created each day, or about one every second.

The impact of this phenomenon is far-reaching. The mainstream media must now compete with a cacophony of independent voices. Their struggle to deal with the changes brought on by the Web is just beginning.

This all seems positive. Free speech is the cornerstone of free societies, although the people who like to say that often seem the least committed to it. But as a generation of Star Wars movies has taught us, the Force must maintain balance. Where is the dark side?

When the Internet came to China, the West saw it is a great leap forward for human rights. Since the Internet went hand-in-hand with liberty, experts predicted that China's notorious thought control apparatus would be forced to diminish or dismantle. Western corporations such as Canada's Nortel were encouraged to help develop China's Internet infrastructure.

Today, the Chinese Internet is a pervasive tool for police surveillance and the distribution of propaganda. Technology developed to promote free speech and protect the rights and privacy of Internet users is subverted by Chinese authorities to do the opposite. Western corporations, from Microsoft to Nortel, have helped them.

And yet, although the Internet can be pressed into the service of unsavoury masters, this is not its inclination. "The web naturally has a certain grain", writes Paul Graham, picking out democracy and respect for its users as two key traits.

Like the printing press, the Web enables the rapid and easy distribution of information, messages and ideas. It is founded on free communication. That the free exchange of ideas tends toward positive results provides a hint of optimism for the future of the Web.

The dark side of the Internet as a tool for oppression and manipulation is one shade to confront.

There are others less sinister, like magenta, the shade of bright purple you'll never use for anything. Free access to information may be one linchpin of the Internet, but free access to useless information is certainly another.

We are swamped with information. Most of it is useless and much of it is meaningless. If the number of blogs is really growing by 80,000 per day - 14.2 million total in July - it raises an obvious question: are readers of blogs increasing in number by 80,000 per day? I suspect not.

What's taking place is a vast gush of text that must run into the billions of words of per day. Is this deluge creating a limpid sea of knowledge or a frothy ocean of digital piss?

Perhaps Google's goal - "to organize the world's information" - isn't just impossible, but misguided. Instead of finding facts and getting answers, perhaps we should be asking questions.

Are the millions of bloggers an impassioned society of individual thinkers or an anonymous lynch mob bent on hanging civil discourse?

Can knowledge be sifted from the shifting digital sands of the Net?

Just how far will our silicon idolatry take us?

Stay tuned as I battle salty spray, crashing rollers and treacherous undertows on the high seas of modern technology in search of answers ... or perhaps more questions.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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