Is the Internet Good for Society?

In 1998, Al Gore, who was the country’s vice president, delivered a speech in which he presented his vision of a future dominated by telecommunications and the Internet:

My message to you is simple: Today, on the eve of a new century and a new millennium, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use these powerful new forces of technology to advance our oldest and most cherished values. We have a chance to extend knowledge and prosperity to our most isolated inner cities, to the barrios, the favelas, the colonias, and our most remote rural villages; to bring twenty-first-century learning and communication to places that don’t even have phone service today; . . . to strengthen democracy and freedom by putting it online, where it is so much harder for it to be suppressed or denied.

This optimism is characteristic of those who are advocates of the digital revolution. To them, the Internet—which is changing the way we access and process information—heralds a new world, one in which human beings will be interconnected as never before. The result will be a political and social Renaissance where ideas flow freely across national borders and where the world’s population will have economic opportunities it has never had before.

There are those, however, who do not share this confident declaration of digital interdependence. To them, there is a dark side to the information age. What will happen to people who do not have access to the Internet? What about those who lack the skills required by our highly technological world? Finally, do we have the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the millions of pages of information that the Internet brings to us—in other words, what are the implications of being in the midst of an ocean of information that we cannot easily navigate or control? Before our technological advances overtake our ability to assess their moral and social effects, we must try to find answers to these questions.