What is the internet?
Is it a technological godsend? Is the internet the ultimate solution to problems of (pick one, or pick many) communication, commerce, travel, learning, teaching, thinking?
Much of the promise of the internet is no doubt real. But maybe some of the claims about what it can, or will, do are exaggerated? Maybe a little historical perspective is in order?
The internet is the transcontinental railroad of our time. Think about it. Like the internet, which the Department of Defense created in 1969, the transcontinental railroad (completed exactly a hundred years earlier) brought technology to bear on people’s lives in new and remarkable ways. When the Union Pacific met up with the Central Pacific at Promontory Point in 1869, a single track had been thrown across the nation and America’s two coasts forever linked.
Just like the internet, the railroad opened new worlds of work and commerce. Just like the internet, it obliterated older notions of time and space. People could travel places they never would have imagined going, and they could do so with remarkable speed. Americans connected with one another differently than they had before. Many saw the railroad as a message from God to His most favored nation, announcing the arrival of the Railroad Age.
Now we live in the Internet Age. And so much of that hyperbolic language of the railroad past is being assigned to the promise of the internet. The internet will do this, it will do that: it will make the world better (richer, faster, smarter) for everyone, for all time. Yet if we take the historical analogy seriously, maybe we should be a little cautious about suggesting what the technological sinews of our age will do for us.
A hundred and thirty-one years ago, the writer Henry George wondered, in a famous essay, “What the Railroad Will Bring Us.” He questioned whether all the hype about the transcontinental railroad (“this railroad that we have looked for, hoped for, prayed for so long”) could possibly come true. Like the internet, the railroad did change, speed up, and alter the world. But no matter the wishful thinking, it couldn’t possibly be a force for universal good.
The railroad could, and did, create immense, almost unfathomable, fortunes overnight, but of course for only the very few. What the technology titans did with their wealth was not at all clear or foreordained. Like the internet, the railroad could only be as “good” as the larger society determined. If its owners and supporters and regulators and users wished it to be a force of good, then it had a chance to be so. The technology itself didn’t think or feel or act. The railroad itself didn’t believe in democracy or equality or egalitarian distribution of goods and services.
The railroad, like the internet today, was not just one thing. Nor is the internet. Both sprang from complex collections of ideas and hardware, of labor, capital and vision. The excitement and the promise of the technology was, and is, almost palpable. But there is a catch. “We cannot,” Henry George cautioned, “escape the great law of compensation which exacts some loss for every gain.”
Henry George knew the railroad for the good it could provide; but he knew as well that its beneficence would not be equally distributed throughout an unequal society. That, he suggested, would be asking far, far too much of technology.
We should keep this old, but still timely, caution in mind as we move through the Internet Age. Assumptions and presumptions about the ways in which the internet will “do good” must be accompanied by watchdog vigilance. Technology and democracy do not necessarily attract one another. We must insist upon their affinity if the Internet Age is to live up to its promise.
William Deverell, associate professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, is currently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is a writer for History News Service and the author of "Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910" (1994).