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What attribute best describes the Internet age?

This article appears in the issue November/December 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 10]

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We have been in the Age of Information. What comes next? More exactly, what will we call what comes next?

We already know the answer to the substantial part of that question. The dominant technology after information processors pretty clearly is the Internet. So, the smart money is on the era being called the Age of the Internet.

There are, of course, lots of ways that that bet could go wrong. Perhaps the name "Internet" will go away. Maybe it will be the Age of the Web. Or the Age of Social Media. Or the Google Age. Or the Age of Some Net Service Not Yet Invented. Or, our age could instantly be renamed the Age of Nuclear Desolation or the Age of Infection or even just Queen Oprah’s Age. History’s funny that way. It likes to make fools of those who predict it. (One of my favorite jokes is an old Jewish one: Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.)

But, I’m not actually all that interested in the question of what name we’ll apply to the coming age. I’m more interested in what you would call the Internet Age if you had to name it after its most important attribute.

For example, you might call it the Age of Connection or the Age of Connectedness. Doing so would say that you think the single most important factor about the Internet is that it lets us communicate and lets us draw relationships. Rather than fixating on objects—things with boundaries—the Net has drawn our attention to how objects overcome their isolation. Or, perhaps this would say that the Internet hasn’t created new connections, but has shown the unnaturalness of our old idea that the world consists primarily of isolated objects; the boundaries were smudged all along, but we just couldn’t admit it. The Age of Connectedness also has the advantage as a phrase of implying that the exact mechanism of the connections—by voice or by typing, etc.—isn’t as important as the fact of the connection itself.

Or perhaps we might call it the Age of the Hyperlink. That singles out one particular feature of one particular Internet application—the World Wide Web—but it is a remarkably important feature, especially in contrast to the previous eras. Paper has dominated our culture for over a thousand years because it’s how we preserved our ideas and thus built a culture upon them. But, paper is a disconnected medium. It’s very difficult to go from a reference to the thing referred to. This has a profound effect on the shape of knowledge and, even more so, on the nature of authority. Since it is so difficult to see how a written idea came to be, we accept authorities as stopping points for inquiry. Hyperlinks let us embed the sources that support, amplify or contradict what we’ve just written. That changes how we write, how we read and how we come to belief.

Or, we could call it the Digital Age. This refers to the underlying "material" of the new age, a traditional way of naming epochs. I put "material" in quotes because the strength of the digital is exactly that it isn’t material: The same digital information can be expressed in electrical voltage levels in silicon chips or in holes in paper punch cards. But I’d vote against this particular label. First, it insufficiently distinguishes it from the Information Age, which was also bit-based. Second, I think you can explain the new age as a reaction against the digitizing of our world, even while we are digitizing more and more of it. (History’s funny that way.) The Web runs on bits, but the Web uses bits to enable people to connect socially in ways that overflow expectations, whereas the primary use of bits in the Information Age was to reduce what we know to what was manageable by computers. That explanation is itself a vast over-simplification, of course, but it leads me to be suspicious of characterizing this new age in terms of bits and digitization.

Or, we could call this the Age of Abundance. Obviously, there are still scarcities in the world, many of which severely limit people’s lives. But there is an unthinkable abundance of ideas, creative works and connections on the Web. This abundance wrecks many economic models, and it subverts the authority of traditional institutions. Much of the Net’s effect can be understood by starting from the abundance it enables. (Meanwhile, we’d better get cracking on the material scarcities that are killing people.)

But, I’d like to suggest one other possibility: The Age of Difference. I don’t seriously think thatthat will be our name for this era, but I do think it captures much of what’s distinctive of it. Our previous ages have managed the problem of scaling knowledge and creative works by imposing scarcity. For example, for the past couple of thousand years, there’s already been too much to know by any one individual, so we’ve set up systems that limit what we have set before us. We have authorities who filter information, and educational systems that test us on set curricula, we establish canons of great works, we create information processors that work so long as we pre-process the world into rows and columns of data. Most of all, we have extended the concept of there being a single right answer from axiomatic systems such as math to just about every area of life. We thus squeeze out differences.

We hire experts whom we expect to give us clear guidance, and we often perceive as weak political leaders who acknowledge complexity and nuance.

But the Web manifests all the differences we had managed to ignore. No one agrees on anything, and now all that disagreement is put right before our eyes. We can see the differences in the links, and, at best, in conversation. In one view, the Internet is causing people to huddle with those with whom they agree. A more hopeful says that while there is certainly some huddling, there is also an inevitable awareness that we live in a diverse world ... and that there is value in that diversity. That is a hope, and it is a goal worth struggling for.

If we indeed come to appreciate the strength, vigor and wisdom of difference, then that would be a change worthy of titling an age.

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