The internet has been, on balance, a good thing for society. It means that we are now more connected than ever and have opportunities to do business that didn’t exist before.
However, it’s not perfect. There are still issues, many of which are already being addressed. Here, we look at some ways the internet needs to change and current progress.
It Can Promote Addiction
One significant problem with the internet is its capacity to promote addiction. Many people struggle to function without access to their smartphones or computers, requiring the constant stimulation it provides.
Addiction doesn’t just mean that people are spending too long browsing on Google or commenting on social media. It also leads to clinical symptoms, including ADD, depression, and anxiety. Life away from a smartphone feels challenging and is hard to cope with.
The addiction issue arises from the evolutionary mismatch between the internet and our natural habitat. Now is the first time in history that we are connected to a global brain, providing us with any information we want at our fingertips, and offering endless entertainment. Before, we had to make do with the contents of our minds and immediate surroundings. However, the development of the internet is changing all that, making it so that anyone can access what they want at the click of a button, eliminating delayed gratification and fundamentally rewiring the brain.
It Can Promote Toxicity
Another reason the internet needs to change is its capacity to promote toxicity. Anyone can broadcast almost anything online, meaning virtually any opinion or idea can get airtime.
This reality differs substantially from the old world where you might hear the odd unpleasant opinion at the pub but not on the TV or any other public broadcast. Now, accessing unpleasant opinions is easier than ever.
At the same time, social media networks are ramping up their censorship campaigns and trying to prevent people from saying things that go against their values. This activity introduces bias into the conversation meaning that certain views once again have the farthest reach.
At present, real-world solutions to these problems are difficult. Private companies are currently taking responsibility for policing their social networks, but new ones keep springing up all the time, and freedom of speech remains alive and well.
It Can Be Inaccessible
Another problem with the current internet is the sorry state of accessibility. While able-bodied people can access online content easily, the same is not true of everyone else.
“Our research shows that somewhere between 22 and 27% of the population in places like the U.S. and Canada has a disability,” says Apryse, a software development consultancy. “Unfortunately, most websites don’t implement helpful accessibility options for their users, making it harder for them to navigate online.”
The main problem is PDF accessibility, the company says. These documents can be fabulously helpful in the workplace, but they lack any sort of inherent support for individuals who are hard of hearing or have limited sight.
“New tools are coming online, but developers must take the lead,” Apryse says. “We’re currently exploring various options to make the tool more accessible. PDFs could become the next standard for accessible documents, as long as the proper development goes into them.”
It Can Promote Misinformation
The internet also needs to change because of its capacity to present misinformation. Even sites like Wikipedia often present false narratives or contain data that deliberately disparages certain individuals, based on their political beliefs.
Unfortunately, anyone hoping that AI would solve this problem will find themselves sorely disappointed. If anything, these tools often make the problem worse. Many chatbots hallucinate, making plausible-sounding yet false statements.
Furthermore, they commit these errors regularly. AIs constantly fabricate information or get facts mixed up, requiring human correction and oversight.
It is unclear how to solve this problem. The best solution would be an improved AI that could determine the truth accurately and impartially. However, there are offline alternatives, such as better educating people or spending more time enabling individuals to develop more sophisticated cognitive defenses.
It Can Reduce Personal Privacy
Another significant risk the internet poses is privacy. Individuals who post information or photos often find themselves giving up sensitive information to search engines and social networks that these entities could potentially use against them.
We already see predatory advertising practices online. However, these could become much worse as the world becomes more authoritarian. Government agencies could insist on being able to access this data and use it to bully the population. We could also see criminals doing something similar to commit identity theft.
These are several approaches you can take to improve your privacy and security online already, with many others in the pipeline. The first is to simply use a VPN and disable all tracking on your devices. These solutions reroute your connection through third-party servers, hiding your connection, location, and identity.
The second tip is to avoid posting any information about yourself online, including your social media pages. We already know that AI companies are feeding this data into their systems to increase their reasoning capacity and knowledge of individuals.
You can also try using private social sharing networks that respect users’ privacy more and hide content behind various firewalls.
It Can Promote The Digital Divide
Finally, the internet is promoting the development of a digital divide. The people who have access to it can make enormous sums of money and have more opportunities, while those who don’t are left stuck in traditional economic structures and left out of sharing in the growing economic pie.
Fortunately, the world is solving this problem rapidly. Recent estimates put the internet-connected population at a staggering 5 billion people, or more than 60% of the global population. However, there is still a long way to go if the digital divide is to go away.
“Accessibility is actually a driver of the digital divide,” Apryse says. “When people can’t access the internet, whether the cause is poverty or disability, it creates imbalances that we would like to see eliminated.”