Aleks Krotoski
Originally published in The Telegraph
Wednesday 18 November 2009

It’s been a few years since anyone has raised the uncomfortable idea that the World Wide Web is not and never will be the global bear hug that its West Coast liberal forefathers and mothers dreamt it would become. They thought the Web, with its open access, decentralised architecture and real world-virtual world crossover would bring about a crazy utopia: it would eradicate race, disability and gender stereotypes. People of different religions, colours and creeds would hold hands, sing kumbaya and our global consciousness would ascend to the next chakra. Or something like that.

Unfortunately, like other ideological experiments, it got too big too soon. People took advantage, business moved into the void, and now what we have is a virtual world full of, well, contemporary society, dominated by individualism, capitalism and the US Dollar. A reflection, rather than a window into the future. How frustrating.

Maybe it’s just common knowledge now: communication for communication’s sake won’t solve war, pestilence or hunger. It won’t stop misperception, antagonism or prejudice. And while I’m playing party pooper, you won’t get these things by buying everyone a sugary, vegetable-based caffeinated bottle of fizzy pop. So there.

But, despite the apparently misplaced hype, the Web has ushered in the most profound change our society has experienced since the birth control pill. It has challenged dyed-in-the-wool concepts, toppled industries and created new ones. It has empowered the common man (and woman), giving everyone a hotline to the White House, Number 10 and the Kremlin. It’s given people a choice: sit by as passive observers or take destiny by the horns and create something new from all of the information humans have ever generated. It’s given us new voices, it’s made us mercenaries, it’s forced us to evolve. Not bad, for something that was born seven years after ET made his interplanetary call home.

But what I find most extraordinary about the Web is what it shows us about who we are and what is important to us. We can’t delude ourselves by thinking that this medium offers carte blanche for a new life that is utterly different from our offline ones, but this is one of the lesser claims made about it. If our limits online are our imaginations, then the fantasies that have been projected across the packets and routers in this network must come from somewhere, and that can only be where we’ve been.

And so, by contributing to the Web – a blog post, a photo, a web search, a purchase – we have, in aggregate, painted the most incredible self-portrait of who we, globally, are at the beginning of the 21st century. We’ve laid out what we value, what we fear and how we’re all connected. And despite our apparent differences, the things that make us kill one another, we’ve done it together.

I suppose if you look at it that way, the hippies were right. C’mere and give me a hug. I’m feeling a kumbaya coming on.