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For the week of Mar. 8 through Mar. 14, 2000

Advice to the candidates: the Internet is no toy

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


At the end of last week’s Republican debate, the moderator asked a final question of the candidates. She wanted to know how familiar they were with the Internet, if they used it at all, and if they enjoyed it. At the time, it seemed a fairly open-ended, even irrelevant question. Perhaps because it was such a seemingly easy question, it occurred to me later that there might be more to it. And, of course, there is. The Internet is laden with both huge potential and significant pitfalls.

Alan Keyes, in one sentence, said, yes, he used the Internet. He then used his time to blather on about some totally unrelated, previous question.

McCain quickly foisted the issue on to his wife saying that, "...she was a wiz on it."

With a somewhat sardonic smile, Bush said, yes, "...he clicked around, surfed around."

All in all, I thought the candidates offered fatuous comments on a topic that may seem to be the domain of teenagers and weird, late night hackers, but, in fact, may present one of the more profound changes in our lives since the development of the telephone.

Granted the Internet does not make a good hero. Unlike inventions such as the car and the transistor, the web of interconnected computers we call the Internet is hardly tangible and somewhat difficult to define. But what it does offer is change in our lives that is one of kind not degree.

It could be argued that the transistor is simply a dramatic improvement over the vacuum tube. After all, the function is basically the same. The web, on the other hand, introduces a concept never before available: that of providing millions of people the ability to communicate simultaneously, irrespective of geographic, political or economic considerations.

The car may have been a better horse drawn cart and the transistor a better vacuum tube, but the web is not a better telephone. It is an idea of a different color altogether.

The advent of the Internet is significant because it profoundly affects the two threads that hold the fabric of western society together, democracy and capitalism.

In the ancient Greek governments, democracy was direct. Every member of the population voted on all issues. Access to information was vital, but communication among the electorate was less so. In modern representative democracy, we vote for representatives who then vote for us. Communication and access to information are paramount in representative government. For the will of the people to be expressed there must be an efficient and reliable link between the people and the representatives casting votes.

This is where the Internet shines. It dramatically expands freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas. Because of the quasi-anonymous nature of the Internet, all voices are heard at the same volume. What is more, access to information is almost unlimited. Provided we get to the point where everyone has access to a computer (and I don’t think that day is far off), our democracy can only get stronger and more representative of the people.

What the Internet offers capitalism is the ultimate free market. Just about anybody can buy or sell anything, anywhere, anytime. It expands one’s perspective of supply and demand curves.

In sum, the Internet is helping our systems of government and economics reach their potential. And like any development that dramatically expands our world, there are implicit dangers to avoid along the way. Recognizing potential gains and their costs is what leaders need do. This is why I think Bush, McCain, and Keyes all missed the home run pitch the other night.

How we proceed from here will determine the Internet’s ultimate value. A central feature of it, often lost on people, is the fact that there is no editor. It is both the beauty and the beast of the matter.

Freedom of speech always pits the individual against society’s desire for stability, law and order. Is all information and speech on the Internet created equal? In other words, does pornography, bomb making, and hate language have a place on the web? Should the editing be done by government, the people or no one at all?

The entire economic relationship between a government and its people comes into question as well. In a world of commerce without geographical distinctions, how does a government tax goods and services? Or should it, for that matter?

Privacy on the Internet is an issue now and will be a bigger one as time goes on. If one considers the Internet as being one giant conversation, should anyone be listening for the protection of society as a whole? If the F.B.I. is allowed to monitor terrorists’e-mails regarding future bombings, how do they make distinctions as to what is a threat and what is not? Does everyone with an Arabic last name become suspicious? Or do red flags go up every time ammonium nitrate is mentioned in an e-mail? Further, who decides what the rules of eavesdropping are?

There are equality issues to consider as well. My argument that the Internet has the potential to revolutionize our political and economic relationships is predicated on the fact that everyone has access to the web. Today that is not the case. According to a poll by National Public .Radio., the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Kennedy School of Government, only 51 percent of blacks have a computer at home while 73 percent of whites do.

Similarly, the gap exists between low income and higher income workers (54 percent vs. 81 percent). The obvious place to diminish these gaps is in the schools. Again, political leaders have to acknowledge these gaps and decide how to eliminate them.

Finally, there are questions as to how the Internet affects our social and familial relationships. More than half of the people questioned (58 percent) in this study felt that they spent less time with family and friends as a result of using computers. Further, 46 percent felt that they had less free time because of computers.

As with any exciting, new development, the complexities and unintended consequences of the exploding Internet are difficult to ferret out. We must, nonetheless, try to anticipate the subtleties of innovation. We would be foolish, as were the candidates the other night, to shrug off the Internet as some idol curiosity used by high school students writing papers.

One could say of the Internet, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, "There is no there, there." Like it or not, there is where we will be.

 

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