The growth of the internet over the last decade and a half has been, to understate the matter, prolific. Today, the Internet allows people the opportunity to find anything from accommodation in Durban to rare collectable antiques to that perfect VW for sale that you’ve been looking for. Indeed, our current age would have to be described as the age of the information revolution.
Whereas by the mid-1990s many trend forecasters had predicted that the internet, as an information superhighway, would revolutionise the world in which we live and the way in which we access information, very few could have foreseen the digital environment in which we now live. The internet (at the time of writing this article) currently has an estimated 2.3 billion users world-wide. Moreover, each of these users has the potential to directly contact any other user of the net, nationality and geographical constraints notwithstanding. In hypothetical terms, the virtual environment created by the internet transcends traditional barriers and has created a global citizenry.
The advantages that the global community enjoy owing to the way in which the physical internet has been built (as a network that reroutes traffic if a specific server or network goes offline) is that it is very difficult to police. Further, the internet, as it stands today, has no central authority governing and censoring the information that users upload for use by other users. The metaphor that is often used to describe the internetworks that together combine to create the internet is that of a cloud. It is indistinct and its intricacy and vast physical infrastructure owes very much to the fact that information is as much of a commodity as any other physical product is.
From an informational perspective, the internet has become such a powerful communications tool that it can also be seen as a primary factor in the generation of new knowledge that has been discovered as a direct result of the communication of ideas. The first communication revolution came about with the invention of writing and linguistic representation. The second was the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg. The undeniable force of mass media was once again underscored when the radio and television provided the public with information sources that could relay large amounts of info directly into an office or home. The most recent mass medium, the internet, however, might prove to be as revolutionary (literally) as the Gutenberg Press.
Recent popular uprisings in North African Arab states have relied on the decentralised information communication capabilities of the internet to organise protests against oppressive regimes. In the past, this information would have been very difficult to disseminate owing to the fact that TV, Radio, and the printing press are easily brought under the control of a central authority, like the state. The role of the internet in recent political upheaval against oppressive, non-democratic state bodies could well be described as apt: without governance, the net is as democratic a communications apparatus as is currently available.
The above points all put the internet in a very positive light. There are, however, disadvantages that arise from a lack of central governance: the primary issue here could be seen as the proliferation of low quality information known as spam. Without content monitoring, anyone with access to the web can upload propaganda, misinformation and disinformation (purposefully incorrect information). Private companies operating search engines have tried to develop highly sophisticated indexing protocols that rate the quality of information on any given page on the World Wide Web.
Despite much success in this area, the rating systems rely on automatic, procedural processes (by a computer), and can therefore be manipulated. The organisation of information on a World Wide Web/s remains an area of concern for all who have a vested interest in having access to quality data.