Once upon a time, with the advent of the computer in the late 20th century, automation and communications evolved to produce human interaction capabilities that came to be known as the Internet. This development allowed entities large and small to connect themselves in vast electronic networks that greatly enhanced communications of all kinds. A myriad of tools and systems developed around those networks to take advantage of these capabilities. Personal, business, technological and even governmental activities arose using these new methods of connecting, linking operations and all manner of communications in a vast network spanning a new cyber world. Truly extraordinary, magic really, was that this new world was accessible, useable, by “normal” people, not just PhD techno-geniuses.
Previously, much of human communication was limited to face to face, telephones, written letters, etc. Remember stamps and weeklong waits for responses? Now anyone could just start up a computer connected to a communications network and do their business cheaply, quickly and much more widely than ever before. The initial uses and experiences with the Internet were exciting, empowering and its uses expanded to virtually every realm of life. Family life was even transformed in some unfortunate ways with kids of all ages and parents glued in all but sleeping hours to ear machines and hand held screens connecting them to God knows what and thereby often disconnecting them from each other all too effectively.
For a couple of decades the world went wild with the potential and actual capabilities. People everywhere were gathered up in the excitement of a “global village” fantasy of free sharing of information, education, ideas, questions, etc. From our perspective now, of course, this dreamlike thinking seems naïve and, as has been proven too many times, even very dangerous.
All segments of society latched onto the new capabilities and assumed they were sensible and safe, so ended up exposing their personal, their business, even critical aspects of their national security to the world at large. The sense of widespread innocent optimism, as we now know, was an unfortunate, if a pleasant, wishful hope in a world of very serious and conflicting goals, threats and exploitative interests. As it turned out, not all users of the new tools had good intentions. Temptations to take advantage of all this interesting and often valuable stuff that was just hanging out there became too much to resist.
The boisterous period of Internet expansion unfortunately did not include ample consideration of personal, business or governmental protections of information and the result was great damage to all who “stuck their necks out”, as they used to say, and increasingly got their heads lopped off. Reliance on inadequate safety systems (firewalls, virus protections, etc.) actually caused untold damages to every segment using the internet, people, business entities and nation states. Literally every participant using the internet came to understand that their life or entity was in severe danger and each then began great expenditures of financial and energy resources to protect against and/or counter the ever increasing incoming threats and invasions. Remember that old saw about locking the barn after the horse has left?
The rising tide of personal, institutional and national violations illustrated how even superpowers could be laid low by any nation or group employing the skills of smart techie hackers. Financial institutions, national defense systems, electric power grids, aircraft flight control facilities, medical information and even patient treatment systems including, incredibly, ongoing hacking causing malfunctions in heart pacemakers (for what sick intent?), cellphone and email providers, all were dealt huge blows to their operations. Individual bank accounts and privacy were the earliest victims. Retreat from the internet soon became imperative to all the damaged attack targets, large and small. The widespread and naïve placing of one’s “family jewels” in the open seemed less and less sane.
The “cyber wars”, usually silent and not admitted, that emerged after 2010, between nations and business entities, ultimately did immense damage to economies throughout the world. Perceived incoming attacks led to reactive countering responses, leading predictably to denials, escalations and the classical tit for tat exchanges that have characterized all of our other wars through history. Conventional world power status was perceived to be becoming an outdated paradigm when the largest nations could be brought to their knees from both feared and actual hacks to their vital operating systems. Hysteria from even a hoax call in the night from some fool in his mother’s basement could and did often disrupt transportation, ground aircraft, schools, defense sites, power stations. Of course actual successful attacks did hugely costly human and financial damages in our real worlds. (Google hacking by North Korea, China, Russia, NSA, Facebook, Sony Hacks for some of the long and morbidly detailed accounts and perpetrators) Enough would become finally become enough.
Shelter became more important than the open field; personal and collective security became paramount. International trust almost literally disappeared when the United States was discovered to be capable and inclined to break into every other nation’s information systems, email, phones, banking and corporate information systems, for their own national and economic interests, as well as their purported desires to protect humanity from “international terrorism”. Most of the savvy public always assumed nations spied on each other, but when the surveillance capabilities and widespread actions judged to be attacks on our own people, of the US intelligence agency, the NSA, was exposed in great detail by whistleblowers (Snowden and others) a critical mass of perception and fear spread worldwide. Big Brother seemed to have finally arrived and most thinking people took notice and took action. For most, the focus changed from outward optimism and sharing, enjoying life in the global village in the new world toward inward protection and disconnection from the feared threats.
The dreams of universal information sharing, open international communications that might have reduced the damage of hyper-nationalism, the “global village” ideals, education accessibility for the masses, etc., began to go in reverse from the previous rapid forward momentum. Walls began to be in fashion again in all areas and the plaza for worldwide communication really began to close quite quickly when most came to believe that security remedies were not possible and certainly not adequately forthcoming time-wise to protect what was clearly at risk from all manner of vulnerabilities and external assaults.
How extraordinary it was that the same humans that had learned to survive since their emergence on the earth so many thousands of years ago, through fight and flight conditioning, through tools for survival like caution, suspicion, hiding, “healthy” levels of distrust, would suddenly, at least for this while, opt to drop age old protections and venture out unprotected with their personal, family and societal valuables. In retrospect, a pretty strange development indeed. Some researcher will doubtless explain, at some point, how this virtually species wide safety avoidance behavior arose
Years back, in the 1960s, the period of the Kennedy presidency was widely called Camelot, a reference meant to convey a magical time of opportunity and promise. That image too proved tough to validate as real in many ways but most, old enough, still recall the pleasant hopes and dreams aspects of the 1960’s. So too it was with the internet.
Hopefully our good scientific communications folks can someday develop systems that might let us actually have and enjoy what started with great enthusiasm and promise back then. Right now though, sadly, Robert Frost comes to mind: “Good fences make good neighbors”.
Ah, but it all did seem like a good idea at the time…..Internet RIP!