The Internet changes nothing

Thanks to Ario for this provocative essay on the effect of the web, called The Internet Changes Nothing.

There is a cynical slant to this piece, which the title gives away, but much of his logic and question are sound, it’s just the conclusions where he sometimes runs astray. I agree Marshall McLuhan was a lousy writer and a jumbled thinker, and technology revolutions tend to warp the idea of what a true revolution should bring. The Internet certainly has changed some things for the better, but it has had little effect on others (Are Americans happier or better educated on average than in 1994?).

Here are two choice quotes:

The Internet is not new anymore.  It’s twenty years old. Commercial television was roughly two decades old in 1970; it was an established medium.  No one then heralded TV as a revolutionary new technology.  The Internet is not maturing.  It is mature. TV’s programming and business models were rock solid in 1970; the new line up was always the old line up slightly modified.  No one speculated seriously about any radical new broadcast TV format. Finally, the Internet has not “changed everything.”  TV too was supposed to “change everything.” It didn’t.  Rather, it altered what we did with our time. Before TV, the week had an extra twenty hours.  TV took them away.

The suggestion being that the Internet mostly has taken those hours back from TV. We used to write letters, now its emails. We used to talk on the phone, now we use Facebook. There is more shifting than radicalizing or revolutionizing. Is the shift a revolution? depends on which part you care about: the means or the ends.

Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats.

Why we don’t use the internet to the fullest is not a technological problem – it’s a cultural / personal problem each of us face that technology can’t solve for us. We had the same problem with typewriters and libraries. And we’ll always have it. Convenience is not always the problem that needs to be solved.

As Neil Postman suggested long ago, there are many kinds of problems technologies not only can’t solve, but have no effect on. If our view of life is tech-centric, we are blind to both the limited impact of technologies on those problems, and the problems themselves.

Read the essay: The Internet Changes Nothing. Worth the time to sort out where you agree and disagree with him.

17 Responses to “The Internet changes nothing”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Scott, you spoiled me. Having read your piece, before I went to the article, I was disappointed by the six comments after the article: they were thin gruel. The internet may make posting comments easier, but lazy people will still, like before, comment about a tree rather than look up to see the forest. I get bored if someone merely says, “I like my internet tree.”

    I was both bored and angered after Roger Ebert posted his suggestion that video games were not art: Because so many commenters showed bad taste. As I recall, all of his detractors said, “I like video games” and none of them could be bothered to dig into “What is art?”

    I don’t mean they wouldn’t think and ponder and chew over a question that has been asked for generations. I mean they wouldn’t even use the web to swiftly find a convenient baby pablum definition. Those commenters, as you would say, showed their personal/cultural problem.

    I guess people haven’t changed since Mark Twain allegedly said, ” A man who won’t read (or do library/web research) has no advantage over a man who can’t read.”

  2. Ario

    I think the main author missed two key pieces of the puzzle:

    1. The internet erodes geographic boundaries

    Before email, twitter, blogs, and Facebook, we were relegated to only making friends/connections with people that were in close physical proximity. That’s completely not the case anymore and many people now make friendships online that transition over to friendships in real life.

    2. The internet has tossed the collective consciousness into a blender

    In the early days of TV (at least in the US), certain shows like “All in the Family,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Seinfeld” became cultural corner stones that a huge majority of the country would tune into. Those days seem long gone as the internet has allowed us all to craft our own super-specialized media consumption cocktail.

    There’s probably way more things the author failed to recognize, but those are the two that jump out at me the most.

  3. Viswa

    I have only skimmed the original essay. To me it appears that the author would say that air travel was nothing new because we were traveling prior to that — only that air travel is a lot faster. He might also say that the invention of the printed book was no great shakes either because people were already copying out books in long hand for millennia before Gutenberg.

    Most changes can be seen as merely quantitative, but when quantitative change is enormous, its impact is so far and wide that it has to be seen as a qualitative change.

  4. Tim

    “The Internet was not born of wizardry, but of the ordinary working of advanced capitalism”.

    Large, speculative tech stock bubbles and off-the-wall ideas from CERN are ordinary advanced capitalism?

  5. Silu Modi

    Interesting article… but nonsense. Honing in directly on your quoted passage from above:

    Randomly emailing people in China is called *spam*. However, I will contact someone in China (or elsewhere in the world) if I have a legitimate need to contact them. I’m much more likely to do it, and much more likely to get a quick response, than I would have been pre-internet.

    I may not read entire newspapers from distant lands, but I do read more articles from newspapers from distant lands if I’m sent a link to the article from someone I trust. I’ve read more articles from the NY Times, Washington Post, Guardian, etc. in the last 5 years than in all the years preceding. I don’t have to wait for my local newspaper to republish the article. I can go straight to the source.

    As for high-minded educational videos, I have learned more about the world from looking up a topic on YouTube than I would have from all the videos I could have rented from my local library pre-internet.

    So perhaps the internet doesn’t change *everything*. But it certainly changes the way I interact with strangers, get my information and educate myself.

  6. Dick


    Of course the net doesn’t change *everything* but it’s hardly reasonable to say it changes nothing. If the thought was that its more evolutionary than revolutionary I’d agree. But lu and others point out, it has changed the ease and methods of communications. And sucking time away from TV to another media for entertainment is hardly ‘no change’. The people running the big media companies started out thinking the ‘net didn’t change anything but I really don’t think they believe that now.

    Personally, my circle of people I regularly communicate with is bigger now but the the big change is the fact that geography is no factor–common interests bring people together like never before possible thanks to the ‘net.

    Taking a position like he does is provocative and that may just be what it was about, but “changes nothing” is just BS.

  7. Riley Harrison

    A couple of thoughts:writers require provocative or catchy titles to gin up readership and technological advances are often over-hyped in the beginning. Media thrives on sensationalism. I think the writer’s premise is just plain silly. I think the internet is a profound change. However, what I did found refreshing were the comments from the readers; they were thought provoking, stimulating and enjoyable to read.

  8. Paul Higgins

    I think that this is in part true. Too many times people get too tied up in the technology when the technology is only an enabler. However I strongly disagree with the premise that the internet changes nothing, it has completely changed the way that we interact with each other and the key difference between TV and the internet is the broadcast versus social/conversation model. Just because people like to watch funny videos and in the view of some of us that is a waste of time does not alter the enormity of the change. I myself now run a business where there are 6 people in 5 locations, something we could not have done effectively a few years ago. I also get to see new and interesting information and people that I would never have seen previously. Your blog being a case in point. If we go back to the point of the technology being an enabler then it is enabling some people to do wonderful things and others to waste their time. We cannot argue that technology is an enabler rather than the thing and then complain about what people do when they are enabled.

    Paul Higgins



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