Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Your Internets

This is pretty much of a thumbsucker but I've been thinking about it lately and I'm feeling lazy today so this is what you get.

After the avalanche of visionary claptrap that fueled the stock bubble of the late '90s washed away along with Pets dot com, we stopped hearing a whole lot about how the Internet was going to radically transform society. Typically, back in 1999, it was going to create some version of a libertarian paradise, along with a whole new economic order out of an orgy of destruction.

Well, retail stores are still around and you still can't get a parking space at the mall today on Dec. 23. Our political trajectory has been in the opposite direction from libertarianism, the mass media are dominated by fewer and huger corporations than in 1995, and we're still driving to the office every morning. On the other hand it's definitely hurt the bricks and mortar purveyors of porno, made it easier for students to research their term papers (or cheat on them), and it's made librarians lonely.

As for social movements, it seems particularly useful to the illegal and reprehensible, from violent jihadis to white supremacists to pedophiles. Obviously more conventional political activists also use it but it has yet to fundamentally change political processes or the poltical order.

But give it time. The Internet is starting to undermine the power of the corporate media to selectively frame issues and filter truth. Although that power did not emerge in time to save us from the national disaster of the past five years, it is becoming more evident lately. By creating communities without regard to geography, and putting much of the cultural heritage and accumulated knowledge of humanity at the immediate disposal of anyone with moderate means, it is already changing the production of knowledge and ideas. Of course, when we communicate over the Internet instead of meeting in a conference room or a living room, it's easy for the government to spy on us, if that should be an issue.

It's certainly having an impact on health care, though only around the edges. Radiologists in Australia and India read the CT scans done in New York and Milwaukee. Doctors can get instant access to medical research and drug information. They can even enter your symptoms into Google, believe it or not, and have a diagnosis in seconds. Communicating with patients by e-mail is the hot new thing.

It's impact on public health knowledge and practice is less evident.

Where do you think it's taking us? How will it change our lives and institutions in the next ten years? Anybody have a crystal ball? What has it meant to you?


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