If only the internet had never been invented

by Toby Manhire / 02 July, 2013
The spectre of cybergeddon leaves Washington Post columnist wishing he could "repeal the internet".
Washington Post business columnist Robert Samuelson usually blames bad stuff on welfare.

But now he’s found a new culprit: the internet. Beware, he intones, “the technological Armageddon”.

Were he able to, Samuelson (no relation to the Nobel prize winning economist) “would repeal the internet”.

In a column that conjures nostalgia for cold war paranoia and Y2K bug hysteria all at the same time, Samuelson sets out his stall like this:

It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

By cyberwarfare, I mean the capacity of groups — whether nations or not — to attack, disrupt and possibly destroy the institutions and networks that underpin everyday life. These would be power grids, pipelines, communication and financial systems, business record-keeping and supply-chain operations, railroads and airlines, databases of all types (from hospitals to government agencies). The list runs on. So much depends on the Internet that its vulnerability to sabotage invites doomsday visions of the breakdown of order and trust.

Samuleson’s evidence for the internet peril is drawn from a report by the Defense Science Board (here it is in PDF).

And there’s no doubting that the report is frightening-flavoured. For example:

There is no single silver bullet to solve the threat posed by cyber-attack or warfare. Solving this problem is analogous to previous complex national security and military strategy developments including counter U-boat strategy in WWII, nuclear deterrence in the Cold War, commercial air travel safety and countering IEDs in the Global War on Terrorism.

Such prophesies have plenty of expert critics, who beomoan the linking of cyber and nuclear threats, the hyperbolic imagery such as cyber-Armageddon (used by Samuelson), and the broader exaggeration (akin to the Discovery Channel’s “shark week”, says one analyst). And from Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness in Foreign Affairs:

Cyberwarfare poses a threat only if it is grossly overused or mismanaged, or if it diverts resources toward a mythical fear and away from real threats.

But Samuelson’s argument goes further than most: he thinks the internet as a whole is a problem. Music to the ears of those who believe the benevolent state should be able to tap into internet traffic, email and all that, as they please.

Meanwhile, “the Internet’s social impact is shallow”, Samuleson says. No doubt, the transformative power of the internet has been exaggerated, and exaggerated plenty, but "social impact is shallow"?

He concludes:

Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing — and the mix may be moving against us.

No mention of cat videos, but presumably this is Samuelson’s idea of a happy future ...


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