The Internet is no longer new. Conversely, it’s always new, which raises technical, ethical, practical, financial, and other issues that we’re facing for the first time, as novel channels and new opportunities arise on a regular and accelerating basis. We’re figuring this out together – consumers, providers, marketers, technologists, government leaders, business leaders, and investors – as fast as we can, and that can make for some healthy debate and controversy but also some legitimate pain in the process.
It creates pain that some people with longstanding careers have to reinvent themselves and may have lost a good chunk of the equity they have built over time in their experience as new skills rise in importance. It creates pain that the Internet has such a long memory in search engines that any corporate or personal lapse stays with you forever like a brand. There are no do-overs, as The New York Times recently pointed out, for example, for the teens who may have committed petty crimes or misdemeanors – even if their “legal” records were expunged. It creates pain that some youngsters are using technology to wield a powerful new weapon against their peers in cyber bullying. It creates pain that new technologies and the education to use them are available to users in an uneven manner. It stresses families that younger generations choose different modes and styles of communication than their parents or grandparents. (Hint, text your kids if you want to reach them.) The list of new problems wrought by the Internet is probably as long as the benefits we enjoy. Change is never easy. Constant, unrelenting change at the speed we have been experiencing it for the last decade or so is especially difficult.
The flip side of this pain is opportunity. No one would be building new and inventive technologies, taking risks, or creating new business models if there weren’t a significant upside possible. Neither would individuals choose to participate if they didn’t find a significant enough benefit. Those benefits accrue to consumers, businesses, and all participants. So, how do we establish a dialogue that supports the beneficial pushing of boundaries and minimizes the discomfort created in the process?
Associations and other leading business organizations have some responsibility, as does the government, to set clear guidelines about how very new communications options fit into our very old understanding of privacy, access, and freedom of speech. The government can and should step in to stop clear infringement of personal rights. After all – just because you can do something is not a sufficient reason to do it. Facebook and others have found that out many times as the marketplace exerts its considerable force.
Individuals have personal accountability and must make their own decisions about whether to participate, at what level, and in what manner, and be prepared for any negative consequences that may follow from their choices. Communities and educational institutions at all levels will need to update curriculums and equipment to prepare kids as well as adults to succeed in the current environment. What about business? Businesses have benefited greatly from the new and more open channels to their customer base. They often lead innovation efforts as a result of that direct incentive. When those business/customer relationships are aligned in a healthy way, there’s a natural stewardship on the part of the business that protects the customer. Boundaries are respected. Private information is guarded. Communication is controlled and molded to fit the preferences of the customer. This positive behavior is a rational investment in their business and in their future markets, but not all businesses take the high road or even agree where it lies.
I believe that most people, businesses, governments, and other parties, are striving to make the right decisions for the right reasons. The difficulty isn’t that there are new problems but that the lack of clear guidance in history or experience leaves us with an uncomfortable void. The stakes are high and the participants represent many different constituencies and points of view. The new balance we must find between rights, access, privacy, commerce, education, and a hundred different but equally important factors is precarious and the ground shifts almost daily. Of course, many examples of disruptive advancement have preceded the Internet in history. Some adapt more successfully than others with varying degrees of pain and benefit, while some simply disappear. Think of horse and buggy providers or scribes. As in earlier progressions in technology, there will be pain and there will be casualties. It’s the price of advancement.
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