The Decade In Which Grown Ups Discover The Internet

July 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

So WikiLeaks dropped the bomb and news networks screamed “Yay!” and the White House cried foul.

I’ve talked with friends about this type of scenario, where a stateless and Internet-based organization starts antagonizing U.S. government’s interests. It leaves the government in a touchy predicament: their interest in state-superiority would suggest blocking a site, but on the other hand they’ve made such a hullabaloo about “closed” countries like China blocking sites that they realize it would be impossible to make a distinction between themselves and our “enemies”, so they’re left impotent. There’s already vague allusions and mentions of “information warfare” and “managing the electrons” from the corners of those who support the State’s military, so I won’t discard the scenario of a push from the government to regulate the Internet from happening, but I feel pretty sure that the government’s own nerds at DARPA-n-such will quietly tell the blowhards that, no, sir, there’s really no damn way to do that.

There are dozens of stories like this across many fields, however, stories of people being outed or shamed by the Internet. Flight attendants fired for blogging, teachers with “naughty” photos on their personal Facebook pages, government officials for their forum comments: all have been laid to waste by their personal behavior online. Here’s my bold prediction: eventually, shame will die because of the Internet. Rather, certain kinds of shame, about behaviors that people needn’t be ashamed of, will die.

I believe that by the time I’m 41 (read: 15 years from now), there will be no scandals about “drunken photos” or most “horrifying comments made online/texting”. This will be because the vast, vast majority of the electorate will have done the same thing. Amongst my friends, even my intensely religious ones, no one is ever truly mortified by a regretted Facebook picture. They laugh it off as just a night or moment that he/she wished she had back, just like all of us. The idea that in the decades to come some paper or politician can effectively hurt their opponent by proclaiming “OH MY GOD THIS MAN GOT DRUNK AND KISSED A GIRL IN FRONT OF A CAMERA BACK WHEN HE WAS IN COLLEGE” is laughable.

Certain kinds of shame, however, will continue: you do something bigoted, it will come back to haunt you, as it probably should. It’s a good thing to be ashamed of wearing a “The South Was Right” t-shirt.

Many government officials will learn about these kinds of things over the coming decade. Yes, Ted Stevens called it a “series of tubes”, and yes, YouTube has caught Michael Steele saying stupid shit. I’m talking deeper than that. The idea that there is a stateless and in many ways uncontrollable environment in which their citizenry can co-mingle, collaborate and converse in is really threatening to them, even if they don’t know it at the minute. Police and law enforcement are as-we-speak learning the hard way about smartphones with cameras and the Internet. Many of them are hiding behind “officer safety” at the moment, but we both know that won’t last. The 10’s will be the decade where most State actors learn that the Internet isn’t just a place for digital mail and clips from televisions shows, that the implications are far more vast and serious.

I realize that most of that knowledge is pretty “duh” for most Internetters, but I’m pretty sure we overestimate how many people, especially in government, know who Clay Shirky or Jay Rosen are.

So, in summary: American outrage over Normal If Unseemly Behavior will subside to near-nothing, and the governments of the world will 1) realize “oh shit the Internet means business”, 2) overreact and try to regulate it as a defense maneuver, 3) eventually surrender and allow itself to be drastically reformed.*

*That last one is more hopefully than predictive. I could easily see it being a violent and messy transition full of government people protesting as the ship goes down. Whatever, this is 30 years from now and I’m sure more future predictions from my side will be better informed at a later date.

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