In case you missed it, in his most controversial column since calling for the return of the Pony Express, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson declared earlier this week that if he could he would repeal the Internet. That is right -- repeal the entire World Wide Web because in his view not only are its virtues "overstated" and its social impact on people's lives modest compared to "electricity, cars, anti-biotics"; but these are far outweighed by its vices such as cyber crime and cyber warfare.
It is easy to see how the Harvard-educated Samuelson could reach such a conclusion sitting at his desk at the Washington Post (a short commute away from his home in Chevy Chase) where he has access to people and information that we can only begin to imagine. But if you do not come from privilege, have the world knocking on your door or have the huge platform of the Washington Post available to you, you probably have a better appreciation for the transformative impact of the Internet.
The Internet is the great equalizer and connector. It makes vast treasures of knowledge available to all corners of the globe that previously could only be accessed in the great museums or on campuses like Mr. Samuelson's alma mater; and at the same time enables us all to communicate with each other about it.
In the field of business, to use an "It's a Wonderful Life" analogy, it enables the George Baileys of the world to easily launch their businesses and not only compete with the Mr. Potters of the world -- but even to win. Today's George Baileys, however, are not limited to the confines of Bedford Falls, since the Internet enables them to process orders from Australia to Zimbabwe. With online video conferencing they can reach clients across the globe, have meetings in Katmandu or Timbuktu or work with a team on different continents and still drive their kids to school and live where they choose
Samuelson should have talked to someone like Sean Belnick who in 2001 at the age of 14 used $500 to launch BizChair.com from his bedroom in Canton, Georgia and by 2011 had $72 million in revenue. Or any one of the million plus borrowers in developing countries that were able to expand their small business through small loans from individuals in the developed world through micro-finance sites such as Kiva.org.
The Internet also has increased government transparency as was evident when approximately 200,000 people watched the live stream of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis' filibuster against a controversial abortion bill and captured the fact that the vote in favor occurred after the session's midnight deadline thereby blocking a later attempt to restate it as occurring during the legislative session.
At the same time, the Internet has given us a powerful voice to respond to the government, as we saw with the social media-fueled Arab Spring movement overseas and the Internet blackout day in protest of SOPA at home in which 115,000 plus sites participated blocking nearly a billion internet users and generating 10 million petition signatures, 8 million calls to Capitol Hill and over 4 million emails which led 14 sponsors of the bill to jump to the opposition practically overnight.
Not only does the Internet harness the power of the many, it can also amplify the voices of a few speaking truth to power. People such as Watson Meng, the North Carolina-based Chinese-American publisher of Boxun.com, which has become one of the most widely read political blogs in China despite government efforts to block it or any of the Huffington Post bloggers who have the potential to reach millions more readers than Samuelson does through the Washington Post.
The truest indicator of the transformative nature of the Internet is the fact that authoritarian governments never banned cars or electricity, but several have shut down the Internet.
Samuelson, however is correct in noting that the Internet, like any great technology, has improved the capability and efficiency of the bad (as well as the good). The threat of a Cyber 9/11 is something very real and one that Samuelson reasonably can see harming his life of privilege that predates the Internet but is less likely to occur than an injury in an auto crash which claims the lives of 2 people worldwide every minute.
Nonetheless, Samuelson makes an Olympian leap in logic in citing this risk as a call to reject the Internet. Ultimately, this embrace of Cyber Amishness says more about Samuelson's myopia than anything else.