Here in Washington, PR practitioners, politicians, media heavyweights, regulators, civil rights lawyers and even hi-tech Web executives are beginning to worry about the Law of Unintended Consequences, Internet Division.
This problem is almost totally unexpected. The rapidly growing use and accessibility of the Internet has created less knowledge; an awareness of fewer things in the world; a narrow community that is unrepresented by traditional delegates and guides; and, worst of all, increasingly providing 'news' by individuals with neither the intelligence nor the desire to select the information that should be passed on.
Some of these arguments are presented cogently in a recent piece in the Washington Post by Andrew L. Shapiro. He argues that our understanding of the Internet and its consequences, contrary to various myths, is 'remarkably thin'.
But he says there is much that is supportive of early predictions that consumers, for instance, will be enfranchised and presented with a myriad of intelligent choices and thus a sense of empowerment.
Shapiro also quotes Norman Mailer's aphorism, 'what technology promises is that we can all be control freaks.' But the danger lies in that most of us are already control freaks, and that the Internet gives too many of us the opportunity to exercise control.
The old egalitarian idea that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, is being swamped by equality of access to good information, bad information and just plain garbage. Anyone may provide consumers a choice, whether of goods or ideas, merely by obtaining access?with no one to limit or to assemble and select.
Shapiro concentrates on news. But the notion that the likes of Matt Drudge, or downloading the sleaziest supermarket tabloid, can pass for news simply because some purveyor chooses to call it that?is dangerous and destructive.
We once thought 'narrowcasting' would enlarge our world. Judicious availability of rare kinds of music, discussion or news itself, it was thought, would open our minds. The jazz lover could discover Mozart, rock fans could hear folk classics, people tired of political sound bites could absorb more serious debate, and so on.
All of this assumed there would be some gatekeepers?editors, critics, producers, and other informed delegates?to choose from the new offerings.
But the Internet has created a new class of individual purveyors to whom everything is equal and only 'what you want' is purveyed. On the World Wide Web, without gatekeepers all we have are trespassers.