Does the Internet Really Advance Us As a Society?

The loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changing.
– Bob Dylan

Where I grew up, there was this old widower who used to say of his vacuum cleaner that it didn’t pick anything up, it just reorganized the dirt and that made the house look cleaner. In a sense that’s what the Internet does; it doesn’t eliminate anything, it just reorganizes it and makes us feel like we’ve advanced as a society.

It’s been said for years that the Internet brings buyer directly to seller with no one in the middle, and things become less expensive and more expedient as a result. I’d say we’re certainly seeing that nowadays in a number of ways. Most people use a search engine to find a product, as opposed to going to a distributor or even the Yellow Pages. And once a suitable product is found, they often purchase the goods online and pay with a credit card.

While this is certainly easier and cheaper, you don’t get to build that same type of trust relationship with the seller, you don’t get to sample the product, and good luck with returns. Brokering these relationships was the job of the middleman. There are things you can do, of course, such as soliciting advice from other people in social media sites, but that’s not the same as a good old salesperson plying you with treats and samples, and a good yarn or two.

But the middleman is not just synonymous with “salesperson”. There are all kinds of other types of brokers and intermediaries that have traditionally served a purpose in our society. What about people who bring you the news? Cut them out and how do you know what’s relevant in your world? Strong advocates of social media tell us that if we belong to enough of the right groups we can decide for ourselves what’s relevant in our lives. To me, that’s a bit like saying gather enough tools and you can be your own carpenter or mechanic. Maybe that’s what you want to do, but maybe not.

And anyway, have we reached a point where we trust anonymous people more than the people who are trained to provide us with the information we need?

Certainly some industries are changing dramatically at this very moment in time. There’s as good a chance that you’re reading this online as on paper. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need people to gather the news, do some analysis, and deliver the goods in a timely manner.

What is a middleman anyway? Are reporters people who shape our thinking and our country, or merely middlemen we can do without? Do their roles change because technology changes, or do we just package them differently and have them keep on going as they always did? Perhaps the medium no longer is the message.

Or maybe more so than ever.

Another industry that’s changing dramatically is entertainment. If you own an iPod or smart phone, you can subscribe to a service where you can download songs for 99 cents a pop. That must create a bit of a problem for the record store industry. Even more, now you can go to YouTube and listen to all the music your heart desires for free, and if you want to transfer those videos to your iPod you can find free utilities online that allow you to do that.

This type of technological change always seems to find a loser for every winner, a zero sum game sort of like the one described by the Buggles in their 1979 song “Video Killed the Radio Star”. (Google it, then watch it on YouTube.)

Nowadays, you can download videos and store them either as videos or convert the audio portion to MP3 format that you can then load up on your iPod. That begs the question, do we really need a recording industry? If we do, what is its purpose and can copyright laws protect it so as to ensure its survival?

What does all this mean to the artists? Certainly throughout the ages artist existed before there was ever a recording industry.

So is the middleman dying? Certainly some middlemen are, but just as certainly new ones are springing up. Is Google not a middleman? In fact it’s probably the uber-quintessential middleman. It gathers your requirements and points you, hopefully, in the right direction. And Google, certainly, isn’t dying.

Bob Dylan’s prophetic song warns us not to criticize what we don’t understand, and if we can’t contribute to a new  way of doing things, at least we should have the good sense to get out of the way. But can we? And is it really any different now than what it was when he committed those words to vinyl, nearly half a century ago?

In the long run, no doubt the times will a-change in a manner that makes sense because that’s just how the world works.

2 replies
  1. M J (via email) says:

    The Internet has sure changed things (I love Bob Dylan too); I just filed my Income Tax online all the while using online resources to interpret the damned forms.

    I started riding a motorcycle when I [semi-]retired and surprisingly learned a lot on rainy days from online sources and videos and when something breaks around the house, I can now usually find service manuals and trouble shooting advice online.

    On the other hand, when people think they are saving money by cutting out the middlemen, I wonder if they are factoring in the $1000 plus for a computer and more than $100 per month to Aliant or Eastlink to access the free stuff 🙂

    You are right; we have traded the local middleman for global information conglomerates and we have pretty well abandoned local businesses (try to find a service station for your car in a rural area) or local sources of meat and vegetables. And on top of that, we increase global pollution for planes, trains and boats to bring our money saving gadgets from away.

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