I Am As Old As The Internet

17:31Ciaran McCormick

My generation are defined by the internet and the galaxy of knowledge and communication that it has developed. As somebody born in the mid 1990s, I have experienced life with and without the World Wide Web. I am part of a unique group of people at the junction between the pre-internet and new worlds. It is true that the technology of the internet has been developed over a long time, ever since J.C.R. Licklider from  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dreamed of a 'Galactic Network' in the 1960s. However, in my lifetime, the Internet has taken on its modern form with an uptake of 2.7 billion people. My experiences of the internet give me a view, admittedly Western centred, on how transformative its influence has been on social, economic and political life.

Flickr: garryknight
I went through secondary school in a sheltered grammar school surrounded by the stereotypes of middle class indulgence. It was assumed that the attendees would have the internet at home, if not in the privilege of your own room, then on a family computer. This was seen as a natural part of the lives of the digital generation. However, my access to the internet was limited to libraries with inflexible opening hours and infrequently used school computers. The research tasks that were set for the next day were a challenge and relied on the resourcefulness of books and encyclopaedias on CD Roms. Sometimes it was a struggle but it was generally fine. Other times it felt a little isolating when other people were discovering the technological innovations of the time such as social networks. However, you may think I am lucky to never have had a MySpace account or teenage photos looking awkward online. Indeed, I feel like I have the common sense to be able to survive beyond the salvation of a Google search and the assistance of technology. The young chap in our cartoon does not share this self-sufficiency.

Cartoon by Politics Beyond Politicians illustrator Rhianna Whitwell
Eventually, the day was going to come when I was dropped into the world of the internet. My eyes were suddenly opened to one of the biggest changes in the way I experienced and communicated with the world. Overnight, I had all of the educational resources at my fingertips, as well as all of the inevitable procrastination that I had escaped, from social media accounts to inane games. A few years later, I now take it all for granted. I am certain that this experience of the internet, late by the standards of those I knew, has had a big impact. It has influenced my career ambitions and hopefully my obsession with social media, technology and the internet will serve me well in the destination I am trying to carve out in PR and marketing. However, I don't think I will ever re-capture that sense of wonder that I felt at first.

Now I belong to the generation that shops online, connects with people we have never met and enjoys social occasions in the dreary glow of screens. It does remind me, though, of how young the internet still is. There are still huge new frontiers to take on. Mark Zuckerburg made headlines with Internet.org, an attempt to get the remaining 2/3 of the world online.

However, the most important thing about the youth of the internet is that the political battleground is being laid out. Essentially, the internet is going through puberty, with raging conflicts beginning to emerge. We know it will get through the process, but everybody knows it will be irrevocably changed. The internet offers the potential for completely alternative systems separate from existing power structures. Political protest and the anonymity of hacktivism has challenged the control of the political order. Virtual currencies like Bitcoin threaten the economic hegemony of the global financial world. Entertainment is now crowdsourced rather than simply being broadcast. One of the things that shocked me when I got the internet for the first time was the endless amount of creativity and comedy there to entertain you for longer than you could possibly imagine.

However, the existing power structures have woken up to this challenge to their authority. The British government has successfully introduced censorship onto the internet. They have banned undesirable content such as websites offering LGBT support, anorexia, violence and anything esoteric, written off as accidents of imperfect yet insidious algorithms. We all need to be reminded that the internet and its associated technologies and apps are very young and need to brought up well. We need to be careful of legitimising restrictions on its freedom. Indeed, we need to appreciate the internet for the miracle it actually is. We must never let money-driven companies or moralising and power hungry politicians take away our freedom to enjoy it.

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