The widely popular third verse of the ‘Book of Genesis’ in the King James Bible is synonymous with the metaphorical meaning of dispelling ignorance:

‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’

God might or might not have said that. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to hurt any religious sentiments. I myself am a believer in God.

Irrespective of the veracity of above, the custodians of God themselves, the churches tightly kept that light of enlightenment within their clutches till the arrival of the printing press.

The probability of God declaring, on the same scale, ‘Let there be Internet’ seems to be much higher. And there was true light of enlightenment that, over the time, spread over mankind.

(One can argue that light is God-given when Internet is invented by mankind. After all, we all are His children!)

I think so, may be because I haven’t lived without light. I have lived without Internet nearly for the first three decades of my life. And then I saw before my own eyes how that message of God unfolded in reality. And it keeps on unfolding. To appreciate the value of something, one needs to live without it.

In the research world, one seldom faces research questions like ‘what’s been the most critical impact of Internet on society?’ Because it’s equivalent to asking what’s been the most critical impact of as important as light on society; or as Bill Gates puts it more tangibly, as important as sum of electricity, telecom and automobile put together on society.

In-spite of all the criticisms Gates faces for Windows, I am ready to overlook all that for this single realization, that too way back in 2000. (And in-spite of all that forecasts; Microsoft is yet to make it big in the Internet world as it could have).

A handful of academicians (Nie and Erbring, 2000) asked similar questions, but answering those proved to be equally difficult due to the very nature of disruptive Internet and its rapid evolutions. Technically speaking, Internet isn’t a single technology but a cluster of technologies (Wolcott et al., 2001), many of which are again disruptive. All of these, with the help of unique characteristics of Internet, further created an atmosphere of further innovations – radical or disruptive in nature.

Moreover, academically speaking, impact of Internet on society can truly be sensed once a sense of stability prevails; however the more Internet changed society, the more society feels the need of change with the newer and newer powers of Internet.

It again varied from society to society as one can see in open societies versus in closed society like China where Internet gets heavily censored.

The best and the worst impact of Internet have probably been on media. Internet is more of an e-media enabler than being an e-business or e-governance or a communications enabler. It all depends when one takes inclusive definition of business, governance or individual usage of Internet along with that of media. Governance is all about how it communicates and transacts with stakeholders of governance, or how it forms it policies for the betterment of the stakeholders. So is business. Internet offers most of those as a media.  

Internet acts as a mass-media to a niche media, as a communicating media to a transacting media, as an informative media to as a participative media, as a one-to-one to one-to-many or to as-you-like-it media characteristics. And all that at unbelievably low cost and high convenience – both for end-consumer and for content-owner in the online media-space and at real time. It also has its inherent global as well as local characteristics.

The true impact of Internet has therefore been in rebalancing the bargaining power of so long ‘faceless people’ of society – in its individualistic form as a person in any society to its collective form as a society; or in the form of societies of society in its global sense. In this new-age Internet media, the consumers, be it for business or governance or for media-consumers, are no longer voiceless. The sooner the business, government or media creator gets it, better is their chance of survival.

An example to illustrate this would surely help. Lately, there’s been a distinct shift in mainstream media in its attitude towards the Wall Street (since 2008 or little before that). However that anti-Wall Street sense was much intense in the new-age media companies since 2004-05 or even before that. Society, not only in the US but globally, realized the drawbacks of entities like the Wall Street much before main-stream media sensed that (or reported that due to commercial reasons). The financial crisis of 2008 acted like the fuse when mainstream media probably realized their shortsightedness, and changed stand, more so in developed world (in the US or in Europe). Otherwise, many of these mainstream news-media organizations might have been irrelevant at Internet speed by now.

Due to unique characteristics of Internet as a media, effect of Internet within media has been the most on the newspaper industry, due to the unique business model of newspaper industry. Its direct costs are offline; its future revenue stream is online. One can argue impact of Internet has been more on music industry (another media), however there it has been worse only for the producers and best for the consumers. More importantly, music does not control mind and actions of the consumer as much as informative news does.

For newspaper industry, they not only see rays of hope through a dark tunnel; rather they see sunbeams of blinding light depending on the perspective. The problem is how to translate that hopes into real time revenue? It’s not the problem that only online newspaper industry has been facing; it’s the same problem many other online business models still have been facing.

Therefore it’s not unexpected that two of the best articles (that I came across) on how Internet has been changing society came from two of the most affected parties. One from Bill Keller of The New York Times, and another from Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. 

While talking about impact of Internet on news-media, Keller referred to Isaiah Berlin. He stated:   ‘Isaiah Berlin famously divided the intellectual world into foxes and hedgehogs — the hedgehog knows one big thing, the more promiscuous fox leaps from idea to idea. The internet is a fox medium, that’s fox with a lower case ‘f’. It is perilous to get locked too firmly into one big idea…’

(It would be interesting to see how Google or China’s policy makers from the Communist Party, both sort of getting locked too firmly in opposite views on the power of Internet, meet their respective outcomes in future). 

The recent move of the New York Times to experiment with some mixed model of paid content bears this thought. One can understand the pain that these great journalists have been bearing to justify the model; albeit as a reader I belong to the vast majority of the Pew survey outcome on what percentage of us are willing to pay for online news content. It is more so when exclusivity of such content is in seconds in the online world.

Reading Rusbridger reminds us ‘the best of the times and the worst of the times’ conundrum that the journalistically value-based newspaper industry has been facing. Rusbridger, for the time being seems to be ‘firmly locked into one big idea’ of keeping the content of The Guardian free. Because it has helped the organization, which was much smaller compared to the size of The NYT, and therefore could easily ride with the Internet wave.

I get reminded that Internet isn’t a game of chess; it rather is a game of Poker. Same media, same journalistic values, same Internet, following same business model so far – but the outcome seems to be vastly different that prompts them to follow partly different paths. Therefore in the battle of Google.cn versus China’s policy-makers from the Party, the final result will depend on subsequent developments (few developments where neither China nor Google may have any control) and their respective decisions and actions. 

Google’s withdrawal from China, if that happens, would be the short-term irrelevant outcome of the starting point of the battle. The outcome of the real war between power of Internet and China’s policy-makers from the Party would depend on subsequent rounds of cards drawn. That’s for the intermediate future.

There is no scope of debate on the final winner in the longer term.

Part II and the concluding part of the article can be found here

Ranjit Goswami is a Professor at Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, and is on Twitter

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