For More Information, Visit Us on the Web

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

New pencil sharpener at SummersaultPerhaps one of my biggest concerns about working in the Internet industry and website development in particular is my participation in a cultural shift whereby people are now not only just able but clearly expected to look for and find online the information they need to live their lives. Where as it used to be the case that referring someone to your website was a way to complement information you were already giving them, or was just one method of contacting you, the display of a web address is now often the only way that many businesses and organizations make their products and services available. The unfortunate reality is that this is no longer confined to promoting the luxuries and accessories of an upper- or middle-class lifestyle, and it's part of a larger trend of an increasing dependence on highly complex infrastructure to perform basic tasks, fulfill basic human needs.

As pay phones become all but extinct, we're encouraged to use our cell phones, or to just log on to the Internet and chat with the person we need to reach. As it takes a small fortune to fill up a gas tank, it becomes easier to carry around credit cards that have lower rates if you open and manage them online, and harder to pay cash. As small businesses are taught the playing-field-leveling effects of the Internet, they shift time and energy resources into maintaining their online presence, detracting from the time they spend maintaining their store front, or even having one at all. Apparently high school kids don't need healthy and safe places to hang out after school any more because they're just going home and instant messaging one another as they browse each other's Myspace pages.

Government registration forms, social services, accurate weather updates, financial filings, interactions with our representatives in Congress, the ability to watch political debates -- all of these things are slowly (or sometimes quickly) moving toward a mode where if you don't have good Internet access, you're going to have to work a lot harder to get the information you want. For a significant population of people in the world who are almost always overlooked, this is a real problem, and one that is growing every day.

And it's not just about the "digital divide." I can't figure out whether it's a privilege or a curse that I'm often no more than a few minutes away from being able to look something up on the Internet. As I wrote in 2005, I also maintain some confidence that if the Internet went away today, things would be okay. But how long will that be true for most people? At what point will the inability to quickly and easily refer someone to your website for more information mean the total breakdown of society as we know it? Are we already there?

I still believe that websites and the Internet in general have a significant role to play in making our lives better, easier, and more about the things that matter. The way that information can be exchanged and displayed is unlike anything else available, and it's a tool we can use for much good. But it's so easy to forget what enormous resources it takes to make that possible - and what significant relative wealth one must have to take advantage of it.

2 thoughts on “For More Information, Visit Us on the Web

  1. John - wait, I thought the point of blogging was that I got to complain about the problems without offering solutions, right?

    I certainly don't have a recipe to suggest. I suppose there's one school of thought that would say we need to find the funding, legislation, programs and technologies to make access to the Internet a global reality, as pervasive as can be. There's another school of thought that would say the complexity and frailty of a lifestyle that depends on the Internet is too distant from how humans can or should live sustainably, and so we should seek to simplify our lives accordingly, to the point where those without Internet access do not experience any inherent disadvantage at all (in the eyes of our global economy and high-tech society).

    I suppose I fall somewhere in between - advocating for reasonable measures to make the Internet available to those who would be able to use it as a tool in bettering their lives, while also pursuing a cultural and technological shift that makes the use of the Internet a sustainable compliment to real human connection, instead of a replacement for it that keeps growing for growth's sake.

    But I'll have to get back to you on the specifics of what that means for those of us working in the tech industry. Thanks for posing a necessary question.

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