Jonathan Swift, step aside. Robert Samuelson’s brilliantly penned satire questioning the value of the Internet puts “A Modest Proposal” to shame. His column for the Washington Post yesterday contends that he would “repeal” the Internet if he could. So deftly written is this piece that the unprepared reader might be deceived into taking his work at face value.
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, the column contends. The Internet’s “upside” is small. Yet we are so dependent upon it for communications and critical infrastructure such as energy, and health care that it constitutes a vulnerability. Moreover, Samuelson seems to contend, it is so essential to modern communications that it is a virtual attractive nuisance for warrantless surveillance by NSA. Thus, the Internet’s “downside” is under-appreciated.
Wait… what? If we’re so dependent on the Internet for so many critical purposes, it must be good for something more than tweeting your breakfast (or the location of the National Zoo’s missing red panda). Thus Samuelson keenly illustrates the views of the armchair Luddite: At first glance, the inexpert observer might associate the Internet with nothing more important than trivial social networking use. Familiarity breeds contempt. When we are routinely confronted with pedestrian manifestations of the Internet such as email, it is easy to forget that the Internet has put the world’s information at our fingertips, that it enables telemedicine and e-commerce, unites far-flung family members, that it helped the reformist uprisings of the Arab Spring, permits healthcare experts to track and anticipate flu outbreaks, empowers political candidates to fundraise, and connect with their supporters in innovative new ways and up-end presidential elections.
And of course, no economist would knowingly overlook the wealth of data showing the indispensable nature of the Internet in global commerce. Only satire would elide over the fact that in recent years, the Internet has accounted for 21% of GDP growth in mature economies, or that search alone generates an annual $780 billion in value worldwide.
Another clue to the satirical nature is Samuelson’s glib embrace of the hand-wringing about the potentials of “cyberwar”, which he adroitly intimates might be the “missile gap” of the 21st century.
If there were any doubt as to its satirical nature, the column’s clear factual errors erase any remaining doubt. GPS, for example, is not even an Internet-based technology. So, to be fair, the column satirizes not only anti-Internet Luddism, but hostility to any Machine That Goes ‘Ping’. Unplug those newfangled devices, indeed.
Splendid work, sir: initially, you fooled us.