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Robert Samuelson’s Internet repeal

by | 4th, July 2013

bob samuelson internet Robert Samuelsons Internet repealTO quote the philosopher Mick Jagger, “What a drag it is getting old.” Or watching others do the same; the voyage from virility to senility hurts to behold.

Consider the Washington Post, long considered a VIP (Very Important Paper), one of America’s most prestigious. And WaPo veteran Robert Samuelson is a Very Important Pundit who became an online laughingstock this week after publishing a Very Serious Column suggesting life would be safer and better if only humanity would abandon this newfangled dad-blasted “Internet” thingy.

“If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more.”

(Captain Obvious knows that GPS has frak-all to do with the Internet. Robert Samuelson and the fact-checkers at the Washington Post do not.)

With such a buildup, you might expect Samuelson to indulge in the standard get-off-my-lawn rant about reckless Millennials squandering their youth on YouBook and FaceTube and TwitSpace. But no. Samuelson’s beef is that we use the Internet for so many things, terrorists could disrupt it and hurt us.

“It brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar [….] So much depends on the Internet that its vulnerability to sabotage invites doomsday visions of the breakdown of order and trust.”

Remember: this is the same newspaper once known for exposing “presidential involvement in the Watergate scandal” and “Pentagon papers reveal ugly truths about Vietnam War”.

Of course, by Samuelson’s logic, we should repeal electricity because people are too dependent on it: without it we can’t heat or illuminate our homes, cook proper meals or even buy gasoline. (True anecdote: I once spent six miserable winter days heating my apartment with tealight candles after a blizzard killed the power to half my state. The adventurous romanticism of “roughing it” during a power outage lasted seven hours and nine minutes; everything after that purely sucked. And that was only Mother Nature being her usual capricious child-abusing self; imagine how much worse it would’ve been, had terrorists deliberately attacked the power grid!)

Is it possible Samuelson’s simply trolling everybody, and we all fell for it? Project Disco.org chose to interpret it that way, stubbornly comparing Samuelson to Jonathan Swift and calling the column “First rate satire” on the grounds that such stupidity cannot possibly be real.

“Samuelson drops clues, however, that his tongue is firmly in cheek.  The defective internal logic is the first.  The Internet ‘merely’ provides us with email, Facebook, YouTube, and GPS.”

Does anyone in the western industrialized world think Samuelson’s anti-web suggestions worth taking seriously? Probably, but such people tend not to have Internet connections so their opinions don’t show up in web searches. Those who have Internet connections and used them to read Samuelson’s column responded by posting with one hand and facepalming with the other.

Adam Thierer, writing for TechLiberation, resisted the temptation to make fun of Samuelson in lieu of a sincere, serious critique.

“What I found most troubling about this is that Samuelson has serious intellectual chops and usually sweats the details in his analysis of other issues. He understands economic and social trade-offs and usually does a nice job weighing the facts on the ground [….] But that’s not what he does here. His essay comes across as a poorly researched, angry-old-man-shouting-at-the-sky sort of rant. There’s no serious cost-benefit analysis at work here; just the banal assertion that a new technology has created new vulnerabilities.  Really, that’s the extent of the logic at work here.”

 Brad Delong made a similar lament in less words when he mourned,

“Robert Samuelson Is Old Man Yelling at Clouds/Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?”

Micah Sifry of TechPresident.com used still less words when he tweeted, “Robert Samuelson wants to “repeal the internet. I kid you not.”

Joho the Blog posted a convenient Mad Libs template for anyone wishing to adapt Samuelson’s rant to other subjects:

“If I could, I would repeal                . It is the       adj          marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities:        trivial example             trivial example          ,     wrong example          , and much more. But the                ’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger:                .”

Of course, Samuelson is hardly the first writer to lament how modern technology causes problems when it’s disrupted. In 1940, the American pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame) published The Long Winter,  a cheerful children’s book detailing how Laura, her family and everyone else in her Western prairie town nearly starved to death during an 1880s winter, after blizzards paralyzed the railroads and supply trains couldn’t get through. The kerosene ran out before the food did:

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.” 

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

But that’s an unfair comparison to make. Ma and Pa Ingalls were cold, scared, starving and shivering in the dark, granted—but even they never went so far as to suggest we repeal the railroads.



Posted: 4th, July 2013 | In: Key Posts, Technology Comment (1) | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink