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25 years on, still adapting to life tangled up in the Web

March 12, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
Twenty-five years have passed since a paper first introduced the concept of the World Wide Web. How do Americans think about the Internet and its impact on their lives? Jeffrey Brown talks to three people who have observed the growth of online life from different angles: Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, Catherine Steiner-Adair of the Harvard Medical School and Daniel Weitzner from MIT.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The World Wide Web turns 25 years old today. The date marks the publication of a paper that originally laid out the concept, which eventually led to the vast system of Internet sites we now use.

Jeffrey Brown looks at how it’s changed the world we live in.

JEFFREY BROWN: One way to do that is to look at how individual Americans think about the Internet and its impact on their lives.

The Pew Research Internet Project did that in a survey just out. Among much else, it finds that 87 percent of American adults now use the Internet, and the number goes up to 97 percent for young adults from 18 to 29. Ninety percent of Internet users say the Internet has been a good thing for them personally, though the number drops to 76 percent when asked if the Internet has been a good thing for society generally, with 15 percent saying it’s been bad for society.

And 53 percent of Internet users say the Internet would be, at minimum, very hard to give up.

We’re joined by three people who’ve watched the growth of the Internet from different angles. Xeni Jardin is a journalist and editor at the Web blog Boing Boing, which covers technology and culture. Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical and consulting psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”  And Daniel Weitzner teaches computer science and Internet public policy in at MIT. From 2011 to 2012, he was U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the White House.

And welcome to all of you.

And, Daniel Weitzner, I will start with you, because you worked with Tim Berners-Lee, who — one of the main people that started all this 25 years ago. What has — what surprises you now, sitting here 25 years later, about where we’re at?

DANIEL WEITZNER, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Well, it does surprise me how tremendously the Internet and the Web has grown into every aspect of our lives.

I think that a lot of us who were involved in the early days of the Internet and the Web had hoped that it could really reach the whole world. And there’s no question that Tim Berners-Lee, who — whose architecture for the World Wide Web really helped it to grow, had the ambition that it in fact cover the whole world — represent everything in the world. But I think it’s amazing how far we have actually come in that direction.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Catherine Steiner-Adair, you look at the interaction between individuals and our technology and with each other, therefore. That has cut both ways, I guess, at least from what we hear from people.

What do you see?

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR, Harvard Medical School: Oh, I think the possibilities for people to connect to one another around the world, or a grandma and a grandchild just across the state or the country, are phenomenal.

But I think that we have all come to a moment in time where we’re sort of thinking we need to reboot and rethink, are we using these tools to connect in the best possible way? And we have to outsmart our smartphones, or else they really can take control over us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, fill that in a little bit. What do you mean take control over us?

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: Well, the clearest example is texting and driving.

You know, when you’re texting — when you’re driving and your phone goes off, and you have the sense of urgency and something really important might be happening, and you better answer it right away, and that part of our brain gets very quickly engaged and wants to react very fast.

And we forget our ambient awareness, our empathy, our connection to the fact that the children we love more than anybody else in the world is sitting next to us in the car, and we’re risking their safety. So we have to get a little smarter about how we react to this technology.

Well, Xeni, that’s a very specific example that hits us all in our daily lives. Right?

XENI JARDIN, Boing Boing: Yes.


JEFFREY BROWN: Continue our thinking about pros and cons from your perch.

XENI JARDIN: Well, you know, I think the Internet is — talking about the Internet is like talking about whether electricity is good or bad or oxygen is good or bad. It’s just this powerful thing that connects all of us and that has become an invisible part of our lives.

And I think we’re all from the last generation that began when there was no Internet. And to really understand where things are going for the future, we might want to have a 14-year-old or 15-year-old at the table.


XENI JARDIN: But I can speak personally.

JEFFREY BROWN: But they would be looking at their screen, right?


XENI JARDIN: Yes, you know, I work with an independent publishing company that wouldn’t have been possible — Boing Boing couldn’t have existed before the Internet as a commercial enterprise. We have been around for 25 years, too.

And I can also say that from my experience as a breast cancer patient. I was diagnosed young and didn’t know the first thing about managing this disease. I connected with mentors through the Internet that would have been — these friendships, these mentorships were so important to me. I think they saved my life. And I credit the Internet with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Daniel, what about — this has been a year, for example, where we have learned a lot about privacy issues…

DANIEL WEITZNER: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … between Edward Snowden and as we learn more about the way we’re — the surveillance or the data mining of companies.


JEFFREY BROWN: That’s certainly something new and a big part of this.


And in your category of what’s unexpected, I do think the Internet and the Web have come to reach into our lives in a much more intrusive way, in fact, a comprehensive way, such that we now have to deal with the world in which just about everything that we do as individuals is recorded and it’s visible, not only to ourselves and our friends and our Facebook friends, but to institutions that are interested in us, governments that may be interested, for good or for ill, criminals who can watch what we’re doing and take advantage of us.

And so I think that, you know, the Internet is — and the Web has this incredible tension to me between extraordinary individual empowerment — I mean, everything that Xeni and Catherine have said about all the things we’re able to do with the Internet. At the same time, a lot can be done to us and a lot can be observed about us.

And I think that, as a society, we’re still really adapting to how to handle all this information in a respectful, fair, and safe manner, how to — and how to make sure that institutions that are large and inherently powerful, whether governments or corporations, have some balance, because their power is being increased in a substantial way because of all this information.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Catherine Steiner-Adair, pick up on that.

How much are people, individuals adapting to that? How much are we even aware of what’s going on? How much concern do you sense from people?

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: I think people are becoming increasingly concerned.

And one of the good trends I see happening more and more in the schools I work in is that schools are doing more intentional education around social emotional intelligence, teaching kids digital citizenship, teaching the tools of cultural literacy, really helping them understand that multitasking doesn’t help you get your homework done well at all, and really trying to help children understand the disinhibiting effects of being on the Internet can lead them to say and do and act in ways that are not their best selves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Xeni Jardin, I want to — another theme I want to bring out here is the mix of free information and the commercialization of the Web, because I think that wasn’t — well, you can tell me how much that was part of the original idea, but certainly we’re now in a much more commercialized space.


Obviously, when the Internet began, this was something that evolved out of the government and out of the public sector, and it wasn’t intended as a big shopping mall. You know, this was something where we could communicate in times of a disaster. Our government could function in times of a disaster.

And the history is all but forgotten now, where everything — I hardly go to stores anymore. I buy almost everything from my home off of Amazon or off of Zappos or what have you. I buy digital movies and watch TV digitally and so on.

Just as the Internet enables interesting new kinds of independent businesses that wouldn’t have been possible before, this sense of power and commerce consolidated into the hands of a few extraordinarily powerful companies, I think, should be concerning, the fact that, for instance, Google is providing, you know, the fiber to our homes, or Facebook is providing the drones that will fly above delivering wireless Internet.

At the same time, they’re connecting us socially and becoming the platform for commerce, that’s a little weird.

DANIEL WEITZNER: You know, this tension of the public and the private, the govern — the commercial and non-commercial was — as Xeni said, was with the Internet from the very beginning.

One of the first public policy debates about the Internet was whether to allow commercial traffic on the Internet at all. It was originally a network built for universities and research organizations. And, frankly, a lot of my older colleagues liked it that way.

It was their own private playground and it was a very high-minded kind of place. Many of us, though, felt that it was important to open the Internet and the Web up to commercial traffic, in some part because it was the only way we could really imagine the Internet actually being able to spread all around the world.

We didn’t think it was either feasible or even a good idea for the government to own the entire Internet. From a civil liberties perspective, we didn’t want a government-owned medium, where the government could then control who could say what on it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, so different alternatives.

DANIEL WEITZNER: So, we inevitably ended up in a situation in which we rely on the commercial marketplace, we rely on private investment to bring much of this infrastructure, much of these services to us.

Certainly, at the large end of that, when companies get too big, we have antitrust concerns. But I think that we are inevitably in a situation where this infrastructure that we rely on so much for both public and private goods is operated as a commercial enterprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Catherine Steiner-Adair, where — where — what’s your sense of where we are in this evolution?

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: I think one thing that is particularly important to think about — or two things, actually — is that when text replaces tone in the way we communicate.

This is the first generation of teenagers to grow up thinking texting is great, and talking on the phone is really weird and intrusive and awkward, that we are really thinking — rethinking about one of our most essential forms of human connection, our capacity to hear one another, and to speech, to read social cues, to look somebody in the eyes.

Skyping is great and I love it, but you can’t really look into somebody’s eyes the same way when you’re Skyping. And tech can do many things for us, but it can’t teach us how to be alone and be quiet in ourselves. And that’s an important thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me — we’re still talking here, right, not texting.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, Xeni, let me just…

XENI JARDIN: That’s just because I have my phone in the other room.




JEFFREY BROWN: You put it aside for a few minutes. I appreciate it.

Well, finish us up here.


JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your sense of where we are in this — same question — the evolution?

XENI JARDIN: Well, you know, it’s interesting.

What if some of these problems that we’re talking about now are just design limitations? What if the technology that comes, perhaps after we’re gone, allows us to communicate with more nuance, and to drift in and out of that mindfulness and presence, in the same kind of subtle and natural way that we all did before there were TV and phones?

DANIEL WEITZNER: You know, as we think about the — how far we have come in 25 years, in the evolution of the technology, in the evolution of our — our social lives built around it, as Catherine is suggesting, I think it’s really important to recognize that the — that all of these technologies, the Web, is really a work in progress, still.

It is changing so much. And I think that our goal ought to be to make sure that it’s changing in response to human needs. We see in so many ways that even large commercial services like Facebook and Google, when they do things that anger their users, they know it, and their users react, and, very often, those services change.

So, as long as we’re in an environment where that can be that kind of flexibility, I think we will continue to head in the right kind of humane direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will gather in 25 years and see where we’re at.


JEFFREY BROWN: Daniel Weitzner, Catherine Steiner-Adair, and Xeni Jardin, thank you, all three, very much.


XENI JARDIN: Thank you.