Chapter 1 - The context of our review

The world wide web

Somewhere in the Egyptian region of Ibrahimya is a child named “Facebook Jamal Ibrahim.” According to a report in Egypt’s Al-Ahran newspaper, the child’s young father decided to name his first born after Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site to honour the critical role it played in fomenting and executing the January 2011 popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

Commenting on this story in a blog post on the website TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis noted that “the baby girl could just have easily been called “Twitter” “Google” or even “Cellphone Camera.” However, for the moment at least, Facebook had become “the umbrella symbol for how social media can spread the message of freedom.”6 Tsotsis went on to suggest a Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to the “internet as a whole for all it had done to advance democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The fact that social media, rather than traditional media brands such as CNN or the BBC, was celebrated as the agent of “people power” in Tsotsis’ column is emblematic of another revolution that has swept the world over the past decade, transforming societies and challenging the fundamentals of commerce, politics, media and the law.

This revolution, like the 18th century Industrial Revolution, has been propelled by technology, specifically, the digitisation of information and the development of a global network of computers by which to transmit this data – the internet.

Together these have created a paradigm shift in how individuals and societies function, giving birth to what is variously described as the “digital age” or the “global information society”.

An offshoot of an American Cold War military defence project, the internet in its earliest iterations was designed to facilitate communication and file sharing between a closed network of computers. By 1971 it had been extended to embrace a network of 23 government and university research centres across the United States. Two decades later, the transformative potential of the internet began to be realised with the invention of the World Wide Web, the system of computer servers and communication protocols which allows information (text, audio and video) to be transmitted and retrieved by users connected to the internet.

The next step-change occurred at the turn of the century with the arrival of what is commonly known as web 2.0, which provided the platforms and tools to allow users with no specialist knowledge to generate and share their own content and to perform myriad functions from social networking to online learning, shopping and entertaining.

The speed with which the world has entered the web 2.0 age has been breath-taking. In 2009, just four decades since its inception, the International Telecommunication Union estimated that 2 billion people, or just under a third of the world’s population had internet connection.7 According to InternetNZ there were 3.6 million internet connections in New Zealand in October 2011.8

At the same time quantum leaps in the science of digitization and micro-processing are enabling the transmission, retrieval and storage of an almost infinite quantity of data at speeds and costs unimaginable only a decade ago.

One of the defining features of the internet, exemplified by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011, is its ability to simultaneously connect thousands of people and to facilitate the continuous exchange of rich information (including text, audio and video) among them via the web.

In this important respect, the internet not only dissolves distance and time, it also collapses the previous boundaries between different modes of communication – the printed and spoken word, the still and moving image – and the means by which these forms of communication were previously transmitted: the telephone, the radio, the television, scanners and facsimile machines.

This phenomenon, known as ‘convergence’ is one of the critical concepts underpinning the internet age and driving both technological and cultural change. On a technological level this can be seen in the rapid evolution of computers, telephones, televisions and audio-visual recorders into powerful multifunctional devices, such as laptops, netbooks, smart phones and iPads, operating on networked digital platforms.

Users of these technologies can now simultaneously surf the internet, conduct face-to-face conversations with friends or colleagues across the world, trade shares, access a plethora of different news and entertainment and broadcast their every thought to a potentially global audience using platforms such as Twitter.

Just as the advent of the mechanical printing press in the 15th and 16th centuries facilitated mass literacy, providing the conditions for the political, economic and social transformations of the Renaissance, so too the internet has provided the tools for social transformation.

Given the speed and rate of these changes it is impossible to predict precisely what impact this new digital era will have on future societies. However it is already clear that the internet is presenting major challenges to the way governments, the judiciary, businesses and the media carry out their functions.

At the same time, it is forcing us to rethink fundamental human constructs such as privacy, identity, transparency, anonymity, memory, security, and intellectual property.

Commenting on recent discussions among G8 nations on regulation and the internet, American author and blogger Don Tapscott summarised the scale of the change heralded by the internet and the read/write culture of the web:9

[t]he Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a [changed] relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don’t know the old rules that governed [how] atoms behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and [requires] a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And, for the first time in history, children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.

In essence, the web has placed the tools of publishing in the hands of every individual with access to it. And, just as critically, platforms such as Facebook, which now boasts over 700 million users worldwide, allow those individual voices to connect and aggregate, creating virtual global “communities of interest”. Thanks to the disruptive nature of the web, these cyber crowds are capable of wielding levels of power and influence hitherto reserved for the mass media and those with access to traditional sources of economic and political power.

The medium in which this great proliferation of publishing is taking place possesses a set of quite unique characteristics which together help explain the game-changing nature of this technology. These include the following:

  • publication on the internet is both instantaneous and global;
  • once published, digital content is virtually un-erasable;
  • users can publish and participate in online activities without revealing their real identities;
  • there is an almost infinite capacity to store data of every kind, from the millions of “tweets” broadcast each day, to the world’s largest libraries;
  • the development of powerful search engines and web browsers allows instant, and perpetual, retrieval of this data, the vast bulk of which can be accessed freely;
  • the decentralised architecture of the internet and the speed and frequency with which data is saved, copied, cross-referenced, routed and re-routed around the globe makes the system highly resistant to attempts to control how users behave or to interrupt or prevent the uploading and downloading of content from the vast network of servers and computers which comprise the web.

Alexia Tsotsis “To celebrate the Jan 25 Revolution Egyptian Names his firstborn ‘Facebook’” (2011) TechCrunch < www.techcrunch.com/2011/02/19/facebook-egypt-newborn >.

International Telecommunication Union “Measuring the Information Society” (2011) < www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/2011/Material/MIS2011-ExceSum-E.pdf >.

This figure is derived from the number of fixed, mobile and broadband connections currently allocated in New Zealand and will include multiple accounts so cannot be interpreted as total users. See InternetNZ “Internet Access Numbers” (2011)  < internetnz.net.nz/news/blog/2011/Internet-access-numbers >.

Don Tapscott “G8 and the Internet: Sarkozy Messes With a Good Thing” Huffington Post (United States, 27 May 2011) < www.huffingtonpost.com/don-tapscott/we-need-more-interent-not >.