Before high-tech soared really high, before it became stratospheric tech, it would have taken a bevy of spies and a long stretch of time to steal 250,000 documents from the U.S. government and a truck or two to transport them. And here is something else: You would not have had a website waiting with open arms to provide the world the details.
In the latest WikiLeaks episode — almost surely damaging U.S. interests, if with uncertain magnitude — the organization’s blog might not have been crucial. It is, nevertheless, important enough in the minds of some that there has been a monster, virus-happy cyberonslaught to disable it, and some might soon be adding WikiLeaks to their list of how the Internet in some ways threatens us, debases us and weakens us.
I am here to argue that the Internet worries are mostly bogus. It is true, of course, that virtually any technology can be both a blessing and a peril. But many of the Internet complaints strike me as baseless or nearly baseless, as Nervous Nelly, seer-aspiring imaginative reaches grounded in only the slightest trace of reality.
Especially active in Internet hand-wringing has been The Atlantic, a generally solid magazine to which I happen to subscribe. While the writers have conceded the most obvious objections to their concerns, they have conceded them just barely as they have told us how Google is making dunces of us all, how this new medium is killing off journalism and how misinformation is trumping real information on a major scale.
The stupidity thesis supposes that the easy availability of material in snippets drives us from in-depth reading that the medium is in a way the message. We hear from a psychologist about how “efficiency” and “immediacy” affect our psyches in such a way that we substitute glimmers for rich understandings.
I doubt it in part because my recent experience was to discover the philosopher Thomas Nagel online, read several of his essays there and use the Internet to buy two of his books, one of which I have completed.
It is just not true, it seems to me, that hors d’oeuvres keep us from wanting steak, and, at any rate, you can find steak on the Internet — classics, the great poems and scholarly papers, encyclopedias that were updated three hours ago, and the likelihood of facts, figures and more on almost any topic you could wish. If you have a personal computer in your home, you have a library in your home, but not a library that will put the brick-and-mortar, book-filled libraries out of business.
There is no doubt that the Internet has been a dagger thrust at newspapers. I have written as much myself, worrying about how the loss of so much classified advertising could be ruinous for the best, most complete, detailed, hard-hitting, intelligent news outlets that exist. It suddenly occurred to me one day while reading about a scheme whereby government would intervene that this thing will take care of itself, that innovators will innovate as they already are and that answers will be found. Meanwhile, readers have access to virtually every newspaper in the country online, on top of hundreds of thousands of other sources.
Then we have the screech that there is lots of made-up material on the Web. Yes, and there is lots of made-up material off the Web, as there has always been. But consider how hard it once was to check out scandalous rumors compared to how easy it is today to use the Web to check out virtually anything of widespread interest. The Internet obviously does have a reach that word-of-mouth does not have, but that works both ways — not just as a purveyor of falsehood, but as a corrective.
Back to WikiLeaks. It is high tech generally that made the theft as easy as it apparently was, and it is a security adjustment to high-tech facts of modern life that is mostly needed. Even without a WikiLeaks blog, newspapers and TV would have likely gone with this story. The Internet is primarily a gracious phenomenon and one that deserves our gratitude.
Decades ago, I was a reporter in Albany, N.Y., working for a newspaper at the foot of a hill that could be ascended only with huffing, puffing, knee endangerment and sweat unless you employed a trick.