Josias Senu | Editor-in-Chief, The Box | Thursday 14 July 2016 | GMT 16:20 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week Wednesday, the Zimbabwean government allegedly attempted to block WhatsApp to stop protestors from mobilising against the police in the streets of Harare and Bulawayo. Noticeably, their efforts were futile in stopping youth demonstrations against the 92 year old Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, as protestors battled with the police on the streets. Many protestors succeeded in shutting down Zimbabwe’s main cities, in the most public display of dissatisfaction since the violently contested election of 2008.
The Zimbabwean government’s attempts at blocking WhatsApp certainly leads to a conclusion that the internet and instant communication technologies have had a profound effect on our society, but to argue that they have somehow changed the world for the better does not appreciate the fact that due to these improvements many disastrous things have occurred. While the motives of the Zimbabwean protests might emotionally affect how we view instant communication technologies, the concurrent violence caused does not paint a morally decent picture of the use and possession of these technologies.
Ultimately, I believe that advances in the internet and instant communications should be kept value neutral – its success is relative and thus to stipulate it favours good over evil would be ignorant of ways in which it has not always been so. Although I disparage the thought of sitting on the fence, this is precisely a discussion that would warrant such behaviour. However, that would not make for an entertaining debate as to why the internet and instant communication technologies have actually made the world more dangerous than ever before.
Advancements in instant communication technologies, for example, have resulted in spontaneous protests being organized very quickly, like that we have seen in the case of Zimbabwe. Moreover, it has proved of serious hassle to the UK’s police in recent years, who have often been playing ‘catch up’ – the 2011 London riots the clearest example. As a result of law enforcement’s immediate incapability to monitor and track conversations that are being made across instant communication platforms such as WhatsApp and iMessage (made harder following WhatsApp’s recent end-to-end encryption update), it has meant that not only are legitimate protestors able to outsmart the police, but illegitimate protestors are able to arrive at their particular destination before the police and perhaps engage in acts of public disorder.
Whether or not these acts could be prevented if the police had been given prior intelligence is irrelevant, rather what is questionable is whether instant communication technologies have actually made it easier for people to organize disruption. At this point, it might be said that predicting the future should always be done with sensible caution, but what if the aforementioned noun ‘protestors’ was changed to ‘terrorists’. It is no doubt that terrorists in Iraq have used instant communication technologies like Snapchat (last year, one ISIS case showed how an individual attempted to groom and teach girls in the UK how to build a bomb) to recruit, teach and train individuals in the UK – the transnational capabilities of instant communication technologies means that not only do ordinary citizens benefit from quicker messages, but criminals also.
However, in some ways the internet has profoundly changed the world for the better, in that we now have a wealth of information all at the end of a Google search. We have increased and efficient access to information. Instead of visiting a library to gather information on the admissibility of police confessions when in breach of an individual’s human rights, we can make searches on the internet where this information has been made much more accessible and reader friendly. The internet has meant that we can store more information than we could in the past, being able to document humankind’s progress digitally rather than in antiquated books.
Furthermore, internet and communication technologies have accelerated the process of globalisation. Just considering the global coverage of media companies in multiple countries, it is now possible for an individual living in Australia to stream Wimbledon live in Mandarin. Even the use of satellite navigation systems has meant that you can now organise a road trip from 10 Downing Street to the Taj Mahal without worrying how to get there.
The benefits of this are beautifully subjective, but it cannot be argued that the internet has definitely not given us these benefits. Nonetheless, the question actually is whether these are really benefits in the first place – does the fact that you can search the internet on how to make a bomb benefit society? Does the fact you can search pornography on the internet benefit society? Does the fact that the ‘deep web’ consists of certain hackers whose sole purpose is to break into MI5, FBI and other international intelligence agencies benefit society? Overwhelmingly and assuming a high moral standard, the internet does not seem entirely beneficial but entirely subjective.
The internet and instant communication technologies have certainly made it easier, faster and friendlier to find and share information. But essentially, it has really given society the capabilities to become increasingly morally deficient and while it might not be apparent now, perhaps just giving these capabilities is more dangerous than its execution.
To illustrate: it’s like giving everyone in the world a nuclear bomb without the activation codes – doesn’t it still frighten you that everyone has a bomb even if we can’t use it? Therefore, I would suggest that advancements in the internet and instant communication technologies is not profoundly changing our world for the better but giving the world its own digital nuclear bomb – the danger signs are apparent; it’s only a matter of time before it explodes. Does it mean we should encourage the censorship of the internet? Well, that’s a whole other debate…