My students are wired. Just like many in their generation, they enjoy reliable Wifi, Bluetooth devices, and of course cell phones. [Now in school, their cell phones are firmly in the off position, in their backpacks. They have no problem with that.] They’re Spotify users, YouTube watchers, dabbling in Discord. Their ticker-tape like TikTok-conversations are no different from other kids their age in any country.
And yet, when asked, they are not exactly impressed with the Internet. In fact some of them are its biggest critics.
In class this week, they’re learning about the architecture of the Net – from undersea cables to network hubs, to old phone lines and the upcoming constellation of fancy satellites; about the impossible to comprehend system of ‘packet switching‘ and the explosion of networking – social, antisocial and otherwise. They’re stunned that no single person really owns the Internet, and that this space (or place) that was cobbled together in the same year as men walked on the moon, still works 50-plus years later.
But when asked “Does the Internet Unite us or Divide us?” the responses come fast and furious. More lean on the side of the discord (no pun intended), and social upheaval they have seen. Some even went so far as to say that it’s a ‘wasteland‘ and how it is “littered with inappropriate things.” One said it is a place where people “bleed emotionally” with gossip and hate. Many others talked of how it is dividing families, and one talked of how awkward it is to meet people his age to only see them all stare at their phones when he sorely needed to meet and hang out.
It’s almost too sad to process. I’m sure you used to think that this was a grown-up person’s view of young people obsessed with social media, or Candy Crush. I can tell you, reporting from the trenches of a high school, that this is now a young person’s world view. The Internet we adults have laid out for them is traumatic and disappointing.
I will be introducing my classes to Tim Berners-Lee later this week. A great segue after talking of the birth of the Internet. But it is also serendipitous timing. A story just out this week about the ‘inventor’ of the Web who two years ago expressed his also disappointed at what has transpired, has new architecture to hopefully fix it. It’s worth a discussion as to how Inrupt, as his idea is called, will do that.
Tim Berners-Lee is just 65. He made no profit on the Web by deliberately not patenting his software idea. Those who have – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple etc – have polluted the waters with algorithms that float around like weeds, trapping our data that gets instantly sold.
I tell my students that by the time they get to 11th or 12th grade, there just might be a new Web. I want them to be optimistic, and even be part of that movement to make the Internet a more habitable space. Perhaps they would lay a new ethical architecture that’s more resilient than the cables beneath them.