Imagine, just try to imagine what it would be like to weather this very real-world crisis without the internet. Then imagine all the ways it can help even more. And stop, please stop claiming the net is broken and makes the world worse. It doesn’t. In this moment, be grateful for it.
What we need most right now is expertise. Thanks to the net, it’s not at all hard to find. I spent a few hours putting together a COVID Twitter list of more than 200 experts: doctors, epidemiologists, academics, policymakers, and journalists. It is already invaluable to me, giving me and anyone who cares to follow it news, facts, data, education, context, answers. Between social and search, good information is easy to find — and disinformation easy to deflate and ignore.
Through that list and elsewhere on the net, I am heartened to see how generously and quickly experts are sharing information with each other: asking for data on presenting symptoms, or emergency room experience in Italy and China, or information on how long the virus stays active on various surfaces. The net will help them do their jobs more effectively and that will benefit us all.
On social media, I have watched citizens connect, gather, and mobilize to press authorities and companies to act responsibly (well, except the ones who are never responsible). CUNY students used hashtags and petitions to hold a virtual protest or march — or very nearly riot — to insist that our classes go online. It worked.
Online, we can thus see the shaping of public policy occur in public, with the public, in full view, and with complete accountability. On social media, we the people get to lobby for what matters most urgently to us in this crisis: availability of free testing, help for workers over companies, paid sick leave. I am confident that without the collective voice of the concerned public online, the powerful would have been much slower to act.
In the coming weeks — months?— of social distancing, we will feel isolated, anxious, bored, stir-crazy; we will need to reach out to the people we cannot touch. The net — yes, Facebook and Twitter — will enable us to socialize, to connect with friends and family, to find and offer help, to stay connected with each other, to stay sane. How invaluable is that! Imagine having only the telephone. Imagine a crisis without the relief of humor, without silly social memes.*
Of course, it is the net and all its tools that empower us to work at home, to keep the economy moving in spite of shutting the physical presences of most every business, to keep many — if too few — people employed. Imagine the value of the economy during a pandemic without the net.
It is the net that also allows us to buy from Amazon — even if we go overboard with everything good and use this power to hoard toilet paper.
The internet is doing just what it should do: connect people with information, people with people, information with information. It enables us to speak, listen, assemble, and act from anywhere. It is just what we need today.
I have been upset lately with some people claiming that the net is broken. This often comes from technologists who helped build the net we have, who go through some sort of Damascene conversion, who then claim that the net is breaking society, and who ultimately argue that they are the ones to fix it — fix what they helped break in the first place. What boundless, self-serving, privileged hubris.
I was going to write a screed about the damage these dystopians can do to the freedoms the net brings us, and I probably still will. But then news overtook my attention and I decided instead that this is the moment to remind us of the gift the net is, how much we depend upon it, and how grateful we should be for it. So much attention in media and government lately goes to what is wrong on and about the net, blaming it for our human shortcomings. But I repeat: It is wonderfully easy to find good information from experts in this moment and it is easy to ignore the idiots. What’s been wrong is that we have been paying too much attention to those idiots. Hell, we elected one president. No, I don’t blame the net for that. I blame old, mass media: Fox News and talk radio. You want to hold someone responsible for the mess we are in? Start there.
So now let us turn our attention to how to improve — not fix — the net and, more to the point, how we use it. We need more mechanisms to find and listen to expertise and authority. We need better means to listen to communities in need and communities too long ignored by Gutenberg’s old, mass media. We need to develop models for supporting sharing of reliable information and continually educating people. There is much work to do.
Is the net perfect? Of course, it is not. I’ll remind you that when movable type was introduced, it was used to print lies and hate, to bring the corruption of indulgences to scale, to seed nationalism, and to fuel peasant uprisings and massacres, the Thirty Years War, and perhaps every Western war since. Did print break society? No, it let society be what society would be. Did we ever perfect print? Of course not. Could we imagine life without it? No.
Martin Luther called printing “the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” Well, I’d say God outdid herself with her next act.
* Favorite meme so far: