In retrospect, it seems overly optimistic to have thought that technology would make us anything other than more of what we already were. Sure... In the early days of the internet it was easy to believe that this magical new technology would usher in an era of heightened enlightenment, riding in on a wave of ones and zeroes. In fact, the early indications were that some new class of humans, the digerati, had unlocked hidden human potential that was beyond the ken of our non-digital brethren. We were the first to begin this grand archive of human endeavor - the first to stake a claim in the wild west of the world wide web - the first to be able to communicate in depth, at the push of a button, instantly and free.
Here Comes The Porn
However, it wasn't long before the first wave of base human nature began to creep in. My roommate and I discovered it one night as we were surfing. There it was, a link that read "A Woman Being Licked By A Man Being F@$ked By A Dog." We clicked the link and there was the woman... then, there was the man... and... Holy Crap! There was the dog! But porn was only the tip of the iceberg of our fundamental human-ness to invade this medium we assumed was altruistically good. It just goes to prove that maxim that "porn and the military lead the way," after all it was a military platform that quickly began supporting the distribution of pornography.
The same thing happened with movable type. It was 150 years before scientific journals were published that we got erotica rolling off printing presses. In the case of the internet, the academic content hit first and then the porn showed up. But, with the cost of production and distribution effectively reduced to zero, the change just happened fast. In fact, all changes happen faster in the digital realm (look around the 2:00 mark). New technologies are hitting critical mass faster with each generation.
There's Gold In Them Thar Hills
Soon, the market came sniffing around because it sensed (correctly) that there were profits to be had. What followed was something of a gold rush. It was only 9 years ago that Amazon turned it's first quarter of profit and the age of desire fulfillment was officially launched. While I am no stranger to the beauty of being able to identify a need, locate the solution to that need, and conduct a transaction to fulfill that need all within one sitting, I recognize that this has diminished the "Book Of Human Knowledge" we all anticipated at the launch of the internet.
I remember feeling a bit violated when the commerce hit. There was a feeling of inevitability about it, but it still felt like the popular kids crashed our private party where we were doing great things - useful things. Now, you can hardly find content without ads embedded somewhere on the page. It became a race to the cash register where once we were racing to the future.
Social networks have fared no better. While I am able to maintain social circles beyond my ability in the era of pen and paper, the quality of information exchanged diminishes with each passing day. Originally, it was great to create tech-solidified channels of communication with people I had lost track of in the real world or formalize a relationship with new acquaintances. Now, social media has become gossip incarnate, facilitating the distribution of misinformation and outright lies with the same ease as well-reasoned opinion and verified facts. Even leveraging some well-intentioned "bullshit sniffers" like Snopes and Factcheck only push the misbelievers into a more staunch defense of their incorrect assumptions.
In much the same way that a deep understanding of nuclear physics moved us from monkeys who fling poo to monkeys who fling far deadlier poo over much greater distances, the digital realm has moved us from monkeys who scatter from lion-shaped shadows to monkeys who can create lion-shaped shadows from which other monkeys scatter. Likewise, the invention of the hammer gave us the choice of hitting a chisel to create great works of art, or hitting another monkey in the head. Which will we hit with the digital platform? The answer is probably both, but history will judge us on which we choose to hit more often.
Which, then, is your choice?