How the Internet Can Fail

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave this speech in 1961, decrying the state of the medium that many had hoped would bring new light to humanity. What is to say that the Internet will not sink into the same mediocrity?

There are differences, of course. The internet is (currently) very much an active, two-way medium; the internet is (currently) a very democratic place, where anyone can espouse their worldview to the whole world for only the effort of typing. And the internet is (currently) far too large and diverse to be effectively controlled by any particular corporate or goverment interest.

But I have a morbid interest in dystopia; and already I see signs that not everyone realizes what freedoms we could lose. Like bad science fiction, here are a few scenarios where the internet fails to live up to its almost obscene promise, where it becomes just another “vast wasteland.”

The Telcos Tell us What To Watch

YouTube sucks. The bandwidth is so damn low; they’re too cheap to pay for proper 3D transmission. I’d rather watch the big ‘V’ — you know, the ViABNBCNNFox channel. I guess they get a volume discount on bandwidth. Good thing that Net Neutrality legislation didn’t pass or it would be even more expensive for them.

Useful Information Ends up Costing Money

There used to be a free encyclopedia, but now it’s subscription only. So is the Library of Congress Catalog, now that it’s been privatized. Of course, online academic and scientific journals have always been restricted; there was a brief flash of interest in open-access Journals in the 2000s, but no one really seemed to care, so the idea died. It’s fine though, since everyone can still read these things; it just takes a few bucks. Everyone can read them in this country anyway. There are subsidies in other places for citizen access. I think.

Intellectual Property Law Serves Satan

No, you can’t show those Citibank documents to your friends — they’re all protected by copyright and trade secret law in perpetuity. Of course it’s legal; intellectual property laws serve the public good by creating incentives for content creation. Why, without copyright law, why, our information-scape would be severely impoverished! Incidentally, this is also why Wikileaks was shut down.

We Forget the Developing World, Again

BBC World News 12 July 2025:

Internet Still not Useful in Africa

A new study released today by UNDP Africa showed that despite a decade of near-uibiqutous access to the internet, those living in African nations are still ten times less likely than their European or Asian peers to consult the web for news, information, or services. “The problem is media formats,” explained the study’s author. “Africans access the web on their phones through the existing 5G mobile networks. The screens are very small, so most web pages don’t view well. Also, most of the major news sources and reference works are poorly represented in native African languages.”

Search Monopoly Goes Bad
The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 never happened. If they did exist, where is the record? There’s nothing in the national archives in Bejing, and you can’t find it on Google. What do you mean, check another search engine? Hey look: it says here we’ve now at war with Eurasia!

The Mainstream Wins

Yeah, of course I’m online. Er, I really just use MySpace and Facebook. There are other big sites out there I guess, but I’ve never heard too much about them. I mean they never have any games or whatever.

We Had Stars in Our Eyes

We thought that everyone having free access to the world’s information was enough. We were so dazzled by our new collective intelligence, we never thought of what else might be important. And that is the subject of my next article.

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