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Internet: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly 6 min read

Internet: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Internet contains multitudes, from optimistic knowledge accumulation to extreme interconnectedness to the most despicable dregs of society.

By Cary Littlejohn
Internet: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Post image
Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

The Good

I’m just old enough to remember life without the Internet. Of the days of dial-up modems, crackling and screaming to life, and the power of an outgoing phone call to ruin your connection. I remember when a ruined connection wasn’t the trifling annoyance it is today, but rather could very well have meant never again finding the particular page you were on, because Web addresses had to be typed exactly or else you’d find nothing at all. I’ve watched the Internet and World Wide Web become so ubiquitous as to spark debates about whether they should be capitalized as proper nouns or left alone in the lowercase because “how much more generic can words be?”

But my experience with the Internet (I still favor the proper noun-ification of this word) tracks back in time nearly as long as my experience with personal computers. When my family got a computer, it seemed everything was [insert-any-word]95 because of the singular, all-encompassing nature of Microsoft’s Windows95 operating system. I remember a program called THE ANIMALS which was an interactive tour of the San Diego Zoo. And The 7th Guest, a spooky and infuriating first-person puzzle game that felt like a mix between House on Haunted Hill and an Agatha Christie novel. Then there was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which I played over at my friend’s house. But my favorite two computer programs were probably Microsoft Dinosaurs and Microsoft Encarta95, the CD-ROM-based encyclopedia. (I especially loved the game aspect of it.)

Encarta led to Encyclopedia Britannica, and before you knew it, we had numerous CD-ROM encyclopedias. It was an exciting prospect, because of the newness of it all, since we had a full set of World Book encyclopedias in the next room. The combination of technology and encyclopedia speaks to some omniscient aspirational ideal of mortal beings. CD-ROMs, while electronic, soon seemed limited by the reality of obsolescence as soon as they were produced, not so dissimilar from an analog encyclopedia. But then came the Internet, with its limitless space and immediate updatability. I tell all that backstory because of a recent article in WIRED about Wikipedia, and how, surprisingly, it’s one of the most roundly beloved sites on the Internet. The article is a delightful read, full of mind-boggling stats. Like, did you know that there are over 6 MILLION articles on Wikipedia? Or that there are over 3.5 BILLION words recorded there? Or that over a MILLION people edit Wikipedia articles daily, but that only about 1,100 users have admin privileges?

There’s so much interesting information in this article alone; in a somewhat meta fashion, parts of it convey information just like a Wikipedia article would. It makes it easy for my Internet-sodden brain to follow. I especially love the comparisons to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the analog world’s greatest attempt to compile all human knowledge in one place (and a past topic of recommendation from me).

It’s ultimately a hopeful, uplifting read, as it’s filled with all the wonder and possibilities that ever-advancing technology like the Internet brings us. You can read it here:

Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet

The Bad

I’m often torn between the new and the old, the analog and the digital. I wear a classic watch with hands and numbers and ticking of seconds one day; I wear an Apple Watch the next. I write often in Bear, my go-to app for note-taking in the digital world (this newsletter, case in point), but I compulsively buy journals – lined, dotted, blank; Moleskine, Field Notes, Rite in the Rain (because you never know) – and pens – colored inks and black ink, fountain and felt-tip, extra fine to medium – so I can do it all over again in my too-rusty handwriting.

I’m drawn to the routine of the writing in a notebook. I’m drawn to the privacy of it. But then I want to be read, so I type out things, clickity-clack-like on a keyboard I don’t really care for and post it and send it and hope for others to do the same. Inevitably, I’ll link whatever I’m writing on Facebook. Why? Because of the sheer number of eyeballs that might see it; the social networking behemoth claims a third of the world’s population as users.

For all its aspirational talk, Facebook doesn’t enjoy the goodwill that Wikipedia does. For many, it’s unquestionably true that Facebook is making the world worse for all its connective power. So much of that deserved scorn falls on the head of Mark Zuckerberg, who continues to talk as if Facebook is and will be humanity’s single saving grace despite constant half-hearted apologies required from the company’s ethos of “Move fast and break stuff.”

So imagine my surprise when I see this article from WIRED about Mark Zuckerberg’s analog notebooks. In a way, it’s a brief history of the company and the phenomenon that is the platform’s popularity. It’s essentially an excerpt from a book decades in the making, and the author, WIRED’S Steven Levy, gets his hands on pages from Zuckerberg’s personal notebooks from 2006. It’s a great teaser for the book, and you can read it here:

Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Lost Notebook

The Ugly

It’s not often I read things that shock me in the sense that the words can actually turn my stomach. In a way, I wish I hadn’t read the following story about the depravity of the Internet, but I know that’s just my cowardice speaking. Not reading about these terrible realities won’t stop them from happening, and the discomfort is useful as hopefully it will stick in my mind as I hear debates in this country about the pros and cons of online privacy.

If you’re like me, perhaps you missed this explosive investigative report from The New York Times on the online crisis that is images of child sex abuse. It came out in September of last year, and while I don’t know exactly what other news was breaking on the day this story was published, I know that there were certainly many other stories going on. Because 2019…need I say more?

The story came to my attention last week because of the unmissable podcast from The New York Times, The Daily. It aired a two-part episode that felt aimed at people like me – people who’d missed the story completely. (In reality, it’s probably more likely that breaking news just kept pushing the intended publish-date, but who knows?) Listen here:

A Criminal Underworld of Child Abuse, Part 1

Or here: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Pocketcast

A Criminal Underworld of Child Abuse, Part 2

Or here: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Pocketcast

If the hope and wonder of the Wikipedia story rests on looking to the future, that same look ahead is profoundly scary when considering the numbers in this story. Consider the following stats from the story (check out the story for a visual representation of this data to appreciate the scale of the problem):

  • In 1998, there were over 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery.
  • Just over a decade later, yearly reports soared past 100,000.
  • In 2014, that number surpassed 1 million for the first time.
  • Last year, there were 18.4 million, more than one-third of the total ever reported.
  • Those reports included over 45 million images and videos flagged as child sexual abuse.

I just became an uncle, and reckoning with the fact that my niece will grow up in a world where this sort of thing can happen is deeply unnerving. It’s a problem without an easy solution, and as the article and podcast both make clear, it very well could get worse as Facebook prepares to implement encryption technology for its Messenger service, from which nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million reports of child sexual abuse images came in 2019. As I think about my online communications, my online protection, my identity and more, I want added encryption wherever available. But it’s hard to reconcile that simple desire when I’m aware of how much suffering it will cause. And when you read the story, you will see that the suffering is unfathomable. Read it here: [WARNING: ARTICLE CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN]

The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?

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