The ancient Sumerians are believed to have invented the first true system of writing more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
Whether or not the Sumerians were the first, it cannot be denied that writing absolutely revolutionized civilization. No longer bound by oral tradition, we as humans could accumulate and store knowledge and pass it down verbatim to the next generation.
Unfortunately, the difficulty of writing extensive works by hand prohibited the majority of the human population from accessing this knowledge until civilization was again revolutionized.
Around 575 years ago, when Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press, making it possible to disseminate knowledge far more effectively by mass-producing written works with relative ease compared to prior methods. In removing the need for scribes to arduously copy text from one volume to another by hand, Gutenberg’s press made written knowledge available and somewhat affordable to the masses.
Still, though books and writing allowed humans to communicate across time and space, it was slow. Writing letters and books in order to communicate with others across the globe meant anticipating long wait times, and often the works would already be outdated when they arrived at their recipients.
A good solution didn’t arrive until 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone.
The telephone allowed, for the first time, near-instantaneous communication over vast distances, and with this the ability to disseminate information with haste. This capability was greatly expanded in 1894 and then again in the 1930s by the subsequent inventions of radio and the television. All three of these mediums meant that for the first time, humans in different areas of the world could receive current information whenever it was available.
The Internet is, if not the culmination of this track, at least the latest step in it. I would argue it’s also the second most potent of these.
Only the invention of the written word itself could hope to rival the power of the internet. Certainly, all these inventions were important, and we couldn’t hope to have the Internet or anything like it without the others, but the Internet combines the best of all of these tools with none of their issues.
Printed books meant knowledge was more prevalent, but only for those who could access it. Moreover, the information contained within books is static; a wrong book is forever wrong. Radio and television, though more immediately accessible and up-to-date, only provide the information transmitted.
Listeners and viewers can’t make requests for certain information like they could be when searching for the right book. The broadcasters dictate what information one gets through these mediums.
The Internet, on the other hand, is easily accessible (albeit only to those who have a connection), consistently up-to-date and allows the user to search for the information they want.
The Internet can store even more vast amounts of information, most of which is immediately available to Internet users. It is, without a doubt, the greatest tool for knowledge we humans have ever created. This is why I get frustrated when people act as if the Internet is the worst thing that has happened to humanity. I’ve actually heard ‘Pity, pity!’ for the fact that I had to grow up with the Internet—as if the Internet had somehow sapped some essential part of life from me.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, and I would go so far as to say that we have been blessed by its creation and integration into our everyday lives. Smartphones and tablets, along with increasingly ubiquitous WiFi, have given us access to the sum of publicly available human knowledge anytime we wish.
No longer do we have to wait until we can go to the library to learn something new, or to review something old. Instructions and tutorials on almost every activity are accessible when we need them. We can check half a dozen (or more) news sources from around the world at the same time!
Ignorance is now, to some extent, necessarily willful: all the facts are easily found for anyone with the inclination to search Google.
It’s not just knowledge that has been revolutionized either; society itself has been tied together through the Internet. “Social media” sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and aggregator sites like Reddit and Tumblr, allow people from all over the world to connect.
Where two individuals may not even have conceived of each other’s existence, they can now be fast friends; they can even speak face-to-face using software like Skype or Facetime. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the Internet doesn’t diminish the human connection, it expands it.
The Internet also allows citizens to organize in ways and numbers previously unthinkable with ease previously unattainable. Protests, rallies and even impromptu street performances can be organized without needing to know individuals personally.
In free countries like the United States, this means easier expressions of our rights, but in oppressive countries like China or Turkey it can mean safety. The ability to anonymously organize counter-government protests means democratic values can flourish even in hostile conditions.
Admittedly, the Internet is not inherently good, it is a tool. Individuals and groups can, and do use it for nefarious purposes.
So too could books, TV and other mediums, though. Humans will always find ways to abuse things for their own ends, and the fact that some use it for evil ends doesn’t detract from the greatness of the Internet.
Good safety practices and common sense will keep you just as safe on the Internet as they will in real life. There is no reason to fear or detest the Internet for its misuses, when its uses are so good.