Comment »Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 6:18 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Musings

The other day Jacob wrote about Susan Greenfield’s claim that Facebook can make you fat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Internet can change the structure of your brain. However, it seems fairly self-evident to me that web 2.0 technology is offering us ways to change how we live and think.

We have greater freedom to express our thoughts and opinions to both friends and strangers through Twitter, Facebook, comment forums and blogs like this. Even Gordon Brown has got in on the action by broadcasting on YouTube.

The Internet offers better medium for dialogue than traditional print or broadcast media. Do web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change the fundamental structure of our society?

Brian Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times, doesn’t think so. He argues that it is historically ignorant to believe that technology can fundamentally change society:

“”The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.”

I’m not really convinced by this argument. I agree that there are a plethora of ‘revolutionary’ technologies which failed to change the world, but communication technologies (like television, radio or newspapers) did change the very structure our society. The extent to which they did is difficult to articulate because of the difficulty for us to imagine our lives without them.

Similarly, I don’t think that blogging, twittering and the like are an optional fad which will simply be incorporated into our existing cultural framework. In western society we live a culture intensely interested in celebrity. Web 2.0 technology offers a way for people to express their need to be recognised and acknowledged by a wider audience than just the people they see in the pub.

I recently attended a talk at the dana centre (Dinner@Dana: Social Surveillance) which questioned whether sites like Facebook endanger our privacy. I don’t think this is the question we need to be asking. We should instead be asking how new technologies will change the way we think about privacy itself. If new generations grow up micro-broadcasting and making their lives public to others it seems likely that our current notions of ‘privacy’ will gradually be replaced by a very different animal.

So, whilst I don’t think the Internet has the potential to change our brains, I think it does have the potential to change the way we think.

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