woman in bed in a dark room looking at a laptop
PHOTO: Victoria Heath

What good is the internet? No, really — what good is it? Is society better because of it? Are people healthier, wealthier or even happier? According to the OECD, the middle class is now a part of the global species extinction phenomenon. Other reports show that the data centers that feed the internet’s voracious hunger for energy are fueling global warming at a ferocious pace.

On a global basis, “The share of people in middle-income households in developed countries fell from 64% in the mid-1980s to only 61% by the mid-2010s,” CNN reported. In the United States, Israel, Germany, Canada, Finland and Sweden, these declines have occurred at an even faster rate. Sounds like internet countries. In the United States, for example, just over 50% of the population is middle class.

Middle-class incomes have essentially flatlined over the last thirty years, while living costs have done nothing but escalate. For instance, in 1985, the middle class spent an average of 25% of their income on housing. By 2015 it was 32%.

The elite, more and more of whom come from the technology industry, have never had it so good. Since the 1980s, the income of the top .1% in society has increased sevenfold faster than the income of the bottom 90%.

The world is overflowing with despots, dictators and the worst possible type of leaders — many of whom are elected with the help of social media. Information wants to be free. Misinformation wants to be free. Many tech companies make fat profits from misinformation, hate speech and general nastiness.

I’ve always held this notion that the internet was a force for the good. But then, it’s just another technology, and there’s nothing inherently good or bad about a technology. Or is there? It seems one of the darkest side effects of the network effect is that the internet facilitates massive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite class. In fact, 26 people own as much wealth in this world as the poorest 50%, as revealed by a 2018 Oxfam report.

Technology is fueling the growth of global wealth, while facilitating its concentration in fewer and fewer hands. And, we haven’t seen nothing yet. Wait until the internet’s cousins grow up, wait until robotics and artificial intelligence mature. Previously, the rich used to hire some of the poor to protect themselves from the poor. With robotics, they won’t even have to do that.

Leave it to the nerds, we’re told. Don’t regulate. Don’t touch. The nerds will just tweak the algorithms a bit and everything will be alright. This laissez-faire, libertarian attitude is the foundation of Silicon Valley culture. There is indeed much that’s laudable about Silicon Valley, but deep inside its soul lies a bullying, macho cruelty that celebrates grinding people into the dirt with relentless work hours and then throwing them into the trash in pursuit of the next big thing. There is no pity in Silicon Valley.

Are these the people we want to be shaping our societies? Because these are the people who are shaping and controlling our societies.