Is the Internet an Ethically Corrosive Technology?
By Staff News & Analysis - October 28, 2010

Where Do We Go From Here? … The aftermath of the Second World War resulted in dramatic technological breakthroughs whose effects are still being felt across the world. But the last twenty years has seen a second technological revolution, one that has been characterized not only by the dizzying array of scientific breakthroughs we have witnessed but by the profound affects those breakthroughs have had on human habits and behavior. It is probably nearly impossible for us to understand how we are being affected by these seismic changes as their evolution seems almost constant. Much like the train timetables A.J.P. Taylor believed to be the instigators of the first war — 'once they start you can't stop them' — it seems momentum now defines man rather than the other way round. That said, unless some attempt is made to try and gauge the effects of these elemental shifts upon us, we may miss the chance to understand what is actually going on. – Evelyn Robert de Rothschild/Huffington Post

Dominant Social Theme: The Internet is a problem.

Free-Market Analysis: This is an interesting article. We have noted that the Rothschild family generally and Sir Evelyn Robert de Rothschild in particular seem to be taking a higher profile of late. We remember when he was interviewed about the financial crisis by the "money honey," Maria Bartiromo, and how he sat in the studio on a big metallic stool facing her dressed in an immaculate suit with his legs dangling and his feet not touching the floor.

He demeanor was gracious and he looked a bit like a dignified, elderly child. He grew animated only once as we recall, when he pointed out to Maria that current problems lay not with regulations and regulatory democracy in general but with regulators who did not enforce what was already on the books. It was a failure of the bureaucracy not the system. And it was an ethical failure of the actors as well. He was emphatic about this.

The tone and substance of this article that has just recently appeared at Huffington Post reminded us of that interview. The article itself is written in a quiet and somewhat melancholy manner. It takes several readings before the underlying theme is elucidated and the points begin to come clear, in our view.

At the beginning of the article, Sir Evelyn Rothschild asks the following question: "It seems as if that most precious commodity of all — time — is being burned up faster than the Alaskan oil supplies or the Amazonian rain forest. Do we have any idea what we are doing or are we just pressing a button and hoping for an answer?" The use of metaphor here is somewhat striking in our view. The two examples used are burning up Alaskan oil supplies (the clear implication being that oil is an ever scarcer commodity) and destroying the Amazon rain forest. Very discreetly, the article has reinforced points regarding two fear-based dominant social themes (focusing on scarcity). Readers of the Bell will certainly recognize them.

The next paragraph deals again with time. Sir Evelyn makes the point that new technology generally saves time … "that precious commodity that might be better frittered away elsewhere." He then adds, abruptly. "But it is in the home also where the most worrying aspects of this 'second industrial revolution' are to be found. You need only observe the young generation for a few minutes to understand how radically different they are."

This is right toward the end of the first third of the article. Some paragraphs immediately follow that offer a fascinating and low-key rumination about the effect the Internet is having on children and the "younger generation." He writes of how children playing endless video games are in danger of losing their connection to the real world or even their own imaginations.

He then writes that various technological breakthroughs have damaged young minds, chief among them television. He mourns the lack of reading and warns that it is too soon to assess the neurological damage that may be happening to young minds as a result of staring at Internet screens all day. He points out that much as children seem to be relating primarily to computers at home, so they are similarly involved at school and that the "personal touch" may have been lost along the way.

He worries that while parents may remember the "old ways," the children of the current generation growing up may be the most affected. This is the most "worrying" question, he writes and it is one that he "hopes to provoke some debate on."

And here comes the crux paragraph, in our view. He writes: "I believe we must now be thinking about these things if we are to consider how we can help our young properly understand our ethics and values when they are now subject to so many questionable forces beyond our control. Should we simply throw our hands in the air and give up all hope? Of if we refuse, then how do we manage? In short, where do we go from here?"

Now comes a call to action. Sir Evelyn points out that it is no longer enough "for us merely to react." He cautions that one needs to "take a breath" and "step back from all the madness" to think things through. Interestingly, he makes the point that if this had been sooner "it might have been possible to avoid all the turmoil and trouble in the world that has been brought on by the financial debacle."

So we can see that the same solutions that the "madness" of the Internet requires (taking a step back and thinking things through) should also have been applied to the economic crisis. It is not only children that "behavioral problems" that manifest themselves in various ways, but adults, too. "Thoughtless decisions based on momentary circumstances have been made that have had huge ramifications for all of us," he writes.

We are now at the end of the article, and he ends it with a series of thought provoking remarks about the financial crisis and the nature of morality itself. He points out the problems having to do with the financial crisis involved many motivated by (short-sighted) needs "of their own pocket." He adds that these individuals did not have give "thought" to the ethics of what was occurring and did not understand "what it took to make those pockets full in the first place."

He writes that people who take "every important moment to think," will discover that truthful, proper and ethical standings create "a better and more prosperous life for all." He concludes by stating that people who focus on these issues truly express the best of human nature and asks a rhetorical but eloquent question: "Are we willing to sacrifice these most important things simply for the sake of progress?"

So … let us summarize. Sir Evelyn has covered an enormous amount of ground with a good deal of brevity. He has pointed out that the Internet itself has removed its users (especially children) from the everyday realm of human interaction. He has then pointed out that the real problem will come in the future when our children's children, not knowing the "old ways," will be helpless to reinforce their genuine humanity (as we understand it.)

The crux paragraph (see above) restates this point in terms of ethics. He asks "where do we go from here?" and then moves into a call to action, stating that one needs to take a step back to think things through. He immediately ties this to the current financial debacle, pointing out that thoughtless decisions have "had huge ramifications for all of us." The thoughtless and short-sighted motivations of one's "own pocket" have led to lapse in ethics and one needs to return to truthful, proper, ethical standings to create a better life for all. These elements, provide us with our fundamental humanity and we ought not sacrifice them simply for the sake of progress.

Let us see if we can restate the article in a sentence: "The Internet, and the lack of humanness and morality that it encourages can be seen in the financial crisis and perhaps we need to step away from technology to rediscover what makes us human." There is a slightly Luddite sensibility in this argument, though it is one that many might be drawn to, given the speed with which the world operates these days. But what we come away with most importantly is the conflation of the Internet with amorality as symbolized by the current financial debacle. "Where do we go from here?" he asks.

After Thoughts

Would the answer lie in some legislative or regulatory solutions that will ensure that children (and adults as well) are not corrupted by the inhumanity of 'Net technology and its corrosive impact on ethics and truth? Is that what Sir Evelyn is driving at?

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