The more I study the early years of the automobile between 1890 and 1960s, the more parallels I see between the automobile and the Internet. While the car has brought an immense amount of change in the world, once can easily argue not all of it was good. I am already seeing the similar signs of strain of human beings when it comes to the Internet that were there in the early days of the automobile if we had been paying attention. Despite these signs, I am afraid we seem determined to strike a path that puts humans second and new Internet connected technology first-—the same way you can see we’ve put the automobile before humans when you look out across the landscape.
If you look back over the 20th century you can say that the automobile transformed this country, but I’d say the automobile became an unhealthy focus over other more efficient, environmentally, and human friendly approaches to moving us human beings around. We could have invested heavily in public transit, rail, and other more socialized, efficient, and effective modes of transport, but we repeatedly have doubled down on cars, roads, and parking garages. As I sit in my NYC apartment I am haunted by the decisions of men like Robert Moses, who transformed the landscape as we know, but with a little more empathy, coordination, and sensibility, we could have crafted a more equitable landscape.
Sadly, we are doing the same with the Internet. When it comes to how we invest in mobile and other Internet technology we are doubling down on everything connected to the Internet being good, often at the expense of more proven analog approaches. As with cars, we see much of it. More damaging and exploitative approaches impact poor people as well as people of color, and this conveniently being overlooked when it comes to healthcare, education, and the judicial system—to name just a few. We just don’t seem to have the capacity to ever be asking “should we do this”, and be honest with the negative environmental impacts of an always online world—-until it is too late. Like our physical environment, we seem oblivious to the cesspool that being online has become and what the toll is on our mental health.
I do not have any answers here. I just wanted a story with a timestamp on it stating that someone was seeing the signs. As we struggle with the impacts of global climate change, I can’t help it is an excellent time to be more honest and pragmatic about how we apply Internet technology. Sadly, I think we will continue ignoring the warning signs on both the impact on our physical environment that the car has, as well as the impact on our mental health environment the Internet has. I know many folks feel that the automobile was inevitable and its role in our society is too large to question, but it isn’t. The same goes for the Internet. We are in control of when and where we implement what we adopt and accept into our lives. We just need to realize the power we have and collectively choose the route that benefits us humans over the money interests behind the automobile and Internet industries.