Do the internet and cyberspace in general make the human race indeed so much more innovative, connected and adventurous, as so many people could believe after the enduring carpet bombing with stories of successful(?), multi-billion dollar startups and extremely rich young entrepreneurs?
Or does perhaps the opposite happen: does it kill our creativity, our ability to look beyond our white pickett fence and our craving for adventure – to boldly go where no man has gone before – thus leading to generations of couch potatoes, who feel no need to leave home... at all?!
We don’t move (We send out for food, get the news on video)
I can prove (There's no need for movies, we got HBO)
In the TV age
When I was a young boy – in the Seventies and early Eighties of last Century – I had a dream of becoming a space traveller. I was infected with the Star Trek and Perry Rhodan virus and I dreamt of travelling in my space ship... With a speed above lightspeed, through hyperspace or the paratron space (Perry Rhodan fans know exactly what I’m talking about), on my way to unknown, inhabited planets and undiscovered civilizations.
The 21st Century of my dreams would be the century in which interstellar travelling would be as common as television in the 20th, so was my expectation. Both by extrapolating the extraordinary fast developments in air and space travel at the time (i.e. the moon landings and the introduction of the Space Shuttle) and the expectations I got through the science fiction books, science magazines and films like ‘Back to the future’ I loved so much, I was so convinced of that concept.
In my imagination we would be hopping back and forth from the past and future, on our travels to the outskirts of our visible universe. The lightspeed and the four-dimension space/time constellation were only hurdles that needed to be passed by the human race and I had little doubt that we were able to do so, before I would become too old to run the gauntlet.
Of course things went very different.
For the former superpowers, the moon is now farther away than in the Sixties and reaching it even with an unmanned mission will already be a helluva job, that will cost a shedload of money. And everybody who registers for a single trip to Mars, knows that he will be on a suicide mission, as returning is simply impossible. Not even to mention the valid and painful question whether that trip could ever be organized at all... In other words: space travel has reached a total standstill and perhaps even a severe setback since the Seventies of last Century.
Those same superpowers are on the brink of re-entering a new and even more dangerous Cold War, dissatisfied as they seemingly are that the last one was not able to blow the world to smithereens after all. A large part of Africa and Asia is involved in killing their adversaries out of the name of their religion, their economic grassroots or their tribe.
Respect for human lives and human opinions is farther away than ever in the meantime and people judge each other again on mindless, stereotypical frames and clichés, that were so familiar in the interbellum of last Century.
Internet has brought the world a lot, but it wasn’t peace, love, understanding and respect for other people and cultures: that has become perfectly clear during the recent crisis years unfortunately. And it did not bring prosperity and more equality to all population groups either: neither in the wealthy western world and China, nor in Russia, Africa and the Middle East.
To the contrary: although the general prosperity has indeed increased somewhat during the last few years and less people are starving nowadays [that is undeniably true – EL], the inequality in the world has soared. The rich people have become richer than ever globally and more people in the western world live at a minimum level of existence than in years and years before. On top of that the general dividedness in many countries and the mutual solidarity between population groups has diminished, in my humble opinion, as a consequence of the ubiquitous neoliberalism and neoconservatism.
And has internet and cyberspace brought real innovation, mindblowing inventions or increased craving for adventure to the world? Did it increase the possibilities of which I dreamt during my childhood?! Forget it!
The cyberspace liberated us from the need to look for and see things with our own eyes, like the people in the 16th Century had to do to make their discoveries. Instead cyberspace glued us to our ‘seats& sofas’, as well as our television sets, computer monitors, iPads and notebooks. People stay more and more at home – in their own ‘cocoons’ – and prefer to go through other people’s experiences, instead of collecting a set of experiences of their own, by doing something weird, adventurous or new. That is except for a limited number of adrenaline junkies that constantly live on the edge, while filming their own prowess and flirtation with death, trying to make a living out of that.
Cyberspace gave people the chance to talk at(!) other people all over the world, but sometimes the people seem to have lost the ability to talk WITH other people. Cyberspace shrank the logical distance to other people, but often enlarged the physical and mental distance to them. Had Christopher Columbus had an internet connection, why would he have bothered to (re-)discover the American continent?!
The British singer and entertainer Joe Jackson fantastically summarized the current times with his song TV Age, written in 1986(!). I share this whole lyrics for the sake of surprising recognition and learning:
Here we stand
(Remote control buttons in our sweaty little hands)
As one man
(We're lining up and waiting for someone's command)
We don't move
(We send out for food, get the news on video)
I can prove
(There's no need for movies, we got HBO)
In the TV age
They're out there somewhere
(You know the force has got a lot of power but what makes you think
It gives a shit about you who are you anyway?)
They're taking over
(And I believe the aliens have to take a physical form on our planet
So why not one with 13 channels)
They're out there somewhere
Times must change
(This ain't the stone age, we don't have rocks in our heads)
What's so strange
(We don't work no more, so why get out of bed)
The last line of this song is becoming a tell-tale description of our current, robotized world, if we don’t be careful.
"But hey", you could ask, "there is so much going on on the internet, so many new developments in the world, so much innovation in the ICT industry and there are so many innovative companies and start-ups. Do they not count for innovation?!"
No, many of the praised and romanticized, so-called start-ups and tech behemoths are companies that mainly recycle other people’s inventions, possessions and/or mental/physical efforts, while making shedloads of money with them.
They do so instead of creating their own inventions, discoveries and innovation. And they do that virtually no own (mental) investments, no science efforts, no real pain and suffering.
Or do you really think that Uber is there for the benefit of taxi drivers and car owners?! And that it was really hard to discover the idea of a global taxi service?!
And do you really think that AirBnB is there to make people happy that have excess housing space?!
Or that arguably the largest and most influential company in the world – Apple – should indeed be a hyped brand with only 25 different electronic gadgets and an online library store full of paid content, that has outsourced its whole manufacturing process to China?!
All these companies are very successful indeed and they have all the right to be successful, as they were the first or the best in their line of business. But are they really, really innovative and groundbreaking?! Think for yourself!
I came to these (slightly negative) ponderings after reading a very good column by Lukas Daalder, columnist of Het Financieele Dagblad and Chief Investment Officer of Robeco Group in The Netherlands. I print a few translated snippets of this column:
How much does Wikipedia add to the growth of the American economy? I have just spent half an hour on Google to see if someone was brave enough to answer this question, but alas...
Why I ask this question?! Because I have a sneaky suspicion that – balanced out – Wikipedia has added negative growth to the Gross Domestic Product statistics.
It is a free service and does not have a price. Consequently, it does not add anything to measurable production. ‘For free’ is ‘without value’, according to the GDP-system. A drop in sales and therefore negative growth. Thank you, Wikipedia!
Last week McKinsey published an exhaustive study in which the emergence of digital services stood in the spotlights. In this study, a link was made between the disappointing development of the world trade at one hand and the emergence of digital data flows at the other. It is clear that a growing part of world trade takes place via the internet.
Trade is measured of course, but those dataflows are largely ignored, according to McKinsey. What goes for trade, goes for the calculation of the GDP. The whole digitalization leads to a much favourable development of both economic activity and an increase of productivity, than the GDP figures grow. Not even to mention prosperity.
To start with something: I really love Wikipedia and it has added so much to my life and to the lives of my wife, boys and girl. It adds so much pizazz to the moniker ‘social media’, as it is made ‘by the people, for the people’. It is a product which is so priceless, that it cannot be something else than for free; and fortunately, it is.
And yet, I have my problems with the presumed ‘good influence’ of all these digitalized data flows ‘on both economic activity and an increase of productivity’.
The economic activity emerging from Facebook and most other social media does seldomly produce anything specially interesting: it is often nothing more than a catalyst for the transfer of data and/or user information. The latter is used for the personal addressing (i.e. pinpointing) of advertisements or for the sales purposes of the collected customer data.
Or do you think that it is a coincidence that the only way that for instance Twitter can make money is still through those darn sponsored tweets?! And that Facebook and Google do not seem to care about your privacy at all?
The whole social media and the whole internet and cyber space have enormously stimulated commercial and financial services and especially advertising, but they have diminished the meaning and importance of agricultural developments, industrial developments and inventions for the world as a whole, at the same time.
So many studies are now aimed at developing new social services, financial services, commercial services and ICT services, in order to become rich quickly or at least die trying.
But where is the scientist who will bring us to the next star Alpha Centauri. Where is the scientist, who will invent the warp drive, like Zefram Cochrane did in Star Trek First Contact.
Or where is the scientist that will do the fundamental research on which the future Zefram Cochranes can base their mindboggling inventions?! Problably he is finishing his study econometry, in order to start a groundbreaking hedgefund, based in cyberspace in order to become rich himself.
Where is the science group that can end dangerous diseases or that will find a way to expell starvation from the earth.
No, it seems that the whole western world is on its way to the development of generations of couch potatoes, who never ever have to leave their houses anymore and can do everything behind their monitor.
Do you catch my drift?!