The Guardian Debate: Rethinking the Internet - Is the Web Changing Society for the Worse? EIBF, 2012, Review

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James Gleick, Nick Harkaway, Ewan Morrison (chair)
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This proved to be the most interesting and liveliest of the Guardian debates at the Edinburgh International Book Festival thus far.

James Gleick, author of The Information and Nick Harkaway, author of The Blind Giant, with Ewan Morrison chairing, filled the available time with well-informed responses to the questions they themselves and the audience raised.

We live in digitally connected times, with all the problems and possibilities that fact engenders. Both speakers were aware of both sides of the digital debate, recognising opportunities and threats in the way we live now.

Harkaway asked whether we now can (and whether we really want to) step away from what human ingenuity has created. He pointed out that there are other measures of time apart from the nano-second mindset that expects everything instantly, complete in every aspect. As an example of alternative time frames he instanced sourdough bread, whose proving and raising time is utterly dependent on external factors over which there is little control (temperature, humidity, etc.).

Gleick pointed out that the community of users produces much of the material on the internet, and that much available information is there through the goodwill of others. Our facility to communicate thus empowers not only ourselves but others also, through our willingness to participate.

Harkaway asked about the place of distraction in a very distracted world, which led on to discussion of the problem of adequately rewarding producers on the internet whilst maintaining space for those who wish to maintain a free forum and exchange of pro bono material. This particular, and frequently frank, division of opinion is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, but no conclusions could be arrived at here.

In other areas of life, the speed of the internet is changing the way in which events are reported – mobile phone film footage from Syria and tweets from Tahrir Square have altered the world view of many in irrevocable ways we are as yet barely aware of.

Discussion of increasing global awareness led on to thinking about the ways in which our on-line lives are increasingly monitored by the major internet providers and their use of ‘choice architecture’. By following our on-line behaviour, marketing becomes based on the ability to predict our consuming patterns given knowledge of our previous choices.

Gleick asked why there was so little public regulation of the activities of internet providers and why there were as yet no significant European internet providers. France’s recent decision to shut down Minitel, its publicly owned precursor to the internet suggests the potential for any equivalent provision is seen as limited at best.

Harkaway’s response was to urge us to watch India, and it seems likely that any challenge to current US hegemony in this area will come from at least one of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations.

This observation brought discussion back to the issue of corporatisation of culture, and the potential for a political polarisation based at least in part on access to the internet and its resources, but as Harkaway asked in his closing statement, will we have enough information in the future to ask the right questions?

Event: 15 August 2012, 7:00pm