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Despite the dot-com meltdown, people continue to use the Internet, and the Internet is likely to continue its gradual (and sometimes rather sudden) process of undermining hierarchical structures in society. A recent survey done for the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that Internet usage has remained fairly steady in the wake of the well-publicized failure of a number of dot-com companies.

Overall, according to an AP story, “more than half of those surveyed said they used the Internet the same amount as they did six months ago. 29 percent said they used it more and 17 percent said they used it less.” And of those who used it less, many said it was because they had gotten more efficient at finding information or had installed faster connections so
they could do more in less time. Only 8 percent of those surveyed reported that they had seen one of their favorite sites go out of business, and most of those reported that they had found acceptable alternatives.

New York Times reporter Michael Lewis offers some insight into the ways the Internet is changing our culture in his new book, “Next: The Future Just Happened.” He focuses on three teen-agers who have found unusual ways to use the Internet and upset accepted ways of thinking about how life and business are done. Whether Lewis truly understands it or not, his examples also demonstrate how outmoded and stifling many of the accepted regulatory
mechanisms developed during the industrial era are.

One teen-ager in New Jersey made almost $900,000 in the stock market in just over a year (and got to keep about $500,000 of it after a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation). After lurking about in investment chat rooms he started offering investment advice to those who obviously knew less than he had picked up on the Internet and from books. Then he started sending out e-mails urging people to buy stocks he had just bought. A day or so later, when the prices rose, he would sell and take a profit. The SEC badly wanted to nail him for stock manipulation, but they couldn’t quite put together a case that would have held up in court. Still, they confiscated some of his profits just to demonstrate who was boss.

Interestingly, the kid told Lewis that he had no idea what he was doing might be illegal. He had seen plenty of CEOs and analysts go on CNBC or give interviews in the Wall Street Journal touting their stock, of which they obviously owned quite a few shares. What was different about doing it online?

The kid had a point.

Another youngster, a 15-year-old from Perris, Calif., was addicted to Court-TV and started hanging out in legal-affairs chatrooms. Soon he found that people were asking questions to which he knew the answers and he started providing them. Then he discovered “expert” websites which offered a range of experts to answer user questions.

Before long he became the top-ranked legal expert on a website, as ranked by the users of the site and its services. Even after it became known that the top-ranked legal advice-giver was a 15-year-old kid who hadn’t even finished high school, let alone spent a millisecond in law school, numerous users preferred submitting questions to him rather than to experts with more impressive formal credentials.

One of the lessons that should be reinforced from all this is something Internet-savvy people have been telling newcomers for years. It’s wise to take information you get from the Internet as something less than Gospel; you should check things out with other sources and ultimately use your own judgment early and often. Just because something is in the form of print on a screen doesn’t mean it’s true – or false. That’s one of the reasons so many people flock to sites they have come to view as reliable, like WorldNetDaily and other “alternative” news sources.

Of course, it’s fashionable among those in the old media to deride sites like WorldNetDaily, arguing that they don’t have the kinds of checks, balances and filters that experienced and savvy editors with impeccable news judgment provide. There’s a little something to this idea. In 20 years in the newspaper business I have had numerous articles improved through suggestions or criticisms by editors who have urged me to track down a fact to its real source rather than a secondary one, or talk to somebody on another side of an issue to characterize a viewpoint accurately.

To suggest that WorldNetDaily and some other sites lack such quality filters entirely, however, is to speak from ignorance (and sometimes from malice). It’s just that the filters are a little different, detecting different kinds of statements or assertions as BS. With any person who makes choices and selections, of course, there’s the temptation to do it by rote or habit or ideological predilection rather than by checking for accuracy and quality of logic. All things considered, however (and understanding that no system is perfect), it’s better to have
organizations with different filters offering information – the more the merrier. That way people can compare how different organizations treat the same news story and make their own decisions.

The Internet has undermined the virtually uniform hierarchy of news filters that used to be concentrated in the three major networks and a few national prestige newspapers (emulated, with rare exceptions, by the drudges in other media outlets) and this is a good thing. It means that the consumer of news and information might have to be a little more discerning, a little more cautious and skeptical, a little more willing to compare and check sources. But that was necessary before the Internet made it possible for those without multimillions in capitalization to become virtual news sources. And the Internet makes it much easier than when you had to go to the library or subscribe to dozens of publications to compare how people with different filters treated developments.

The Internet also seems to undermine the whole idea of credentialism as a means of judging reliability or usefulness of information. If a 15-year-old kid is still a preferred provider even after people know he doesn’t have a law degree, some of it might be due to a na?ve belief that he’s a preternatural genius who just knows anything. But some of it might be that people have judged the quality of his responses as compared to the quality from other “experts” and decided that he provides better quality. If so, this is an extraordinarily healthy development.

Credentials have their uses, of course. Companies that hire a lot of people can often screen out outright flakes by requiring a college degree or high school diploma as a minimal requirement for a given position. But having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean one learned anything useful or picked up the habit of constantly learning new things from college. Plenty
of Ph.D.s are useless outside their own narrow specialties and not much use within them.

Credentials, in much of modern society, have become a substitute for the much more difficult (and admittedly often uncertain) chore of judging people as individuals, on their own merits and what they actually know and do rather than on what kind of plaques they have on their wall. Modern Americans don’t like to think they are judging other people; it’s just so – well, judgmental. So accepting credentials becomes a substitute.

If the Internet, where identities and credentials can be faked or sideslipped fairly easily, undermines the perceived validity of credentials and encourages people to judge others by what they actually know rather than what some licensing agency has certified, that would be a healthy development. Most licensing systems, though they are sold as ways to protect consumers (and have some minor value in that regard), have been from the outset schemes to protect practitioners from competition and enhance their incomes anyway. The more quickly they are undermined the better.

Finally, the Internet should remind us that older methods of protecting intellectual property and similar creative products are not necessarily applicable to newer technologies. Since few Americans study history, few know that copyright law for books and printed matter didn’t spring up instantly. It took about 200 years after the development of moveable type, with numerous false starts and mistakes, before copyright law finally evolved in Western Europe, and continued to evolve. To imagine that the methods used to protect print copyrights – as distinguished from the underlying principle that some protection is a good idea – can simply be applied without alteration to a new technology is foolishness.

It will probably take decades and numerous mistakes and blind alleys before satisfactory means of protecting intellectual property in the electronic age are developed. If we’re lucky there will be enough experiments in market-oriented and voluntary methods of protecting it that we just might decide it doesn’t have to be done through the coercive power of the state. Laws tend to lock in the state of the art at the moment (or, more typically, the state of the art as of five years before the law was passed) and deter innovation and experimentation.

The Internet is hardly the guaranteed road to political Nirvana or the guarantor of freedom in the future. It can be and will be abused and used for fraudulent purposes, and it could be used for endless snooping by the authorities. It will almost certainly be subverted and co-opted away from its liberating potential unless those who care about liberation are vigilant.

But the Internet demonstrates that a decentralized, self-governing world is not only possible, it just might work better than the “real” world in which those in power insist we need scads of minute governance. It undermines hierarchies and settled ways. It raises questions about old-style regulations. It encourages and rewards people who check, compare and think for themselves rather than relying on authority figures to do their thinking for them. It allows people to be connected to one another without having to plow through endless bureaucracies and getting permission from bosses first. It invites communities of interest across artificial political and ethnic borders.

The dot-com meltdown was a probably inevitable adjustment, a weeding out of projects and enterprises that were never economically viable anyway, and a learning process for those who remain. The Internet continues to develop and to change the way we live. For the most part that’s healthy for those who love freedom.

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