Washington, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ever greater use of the Internet is undermining certain kinds of human communities but creating others in their place, a process that promises to fundamentally transform social, political and international life.
That is the disturbing message of a debate sparked this week by the release of the first large-scale survey of the societal impact of the Internet in the United States. The study found that those who go online are likely to spend less time with family and friends, less time shopping in stores, and more time working at home, all of which undermine certain traditionally defined communities.
The study's leading investigator, Norman Nie of Stanford University, described the potential impact of Internet use on the family in almost apocalyptic terms. "When you spend your time on the Internet," he said, "you don't hear a human voice and you never get a hug."
Indeed, he suggested, "there are going to be millions of people with very minimal human interaction. We're really in for some things that are potentially great freedoms but frightening in terms of long-term social interaction.
He argued that social and political leaders needed to begin to focus on the consequences of this shift in human interaction before it was too late. "No one is asking the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going to live in when the Internet becomes ubiquitous," Nie observed.
Drawing explicit parallels between the impact of the Internet and the unintended consequences of the rise of automobiles and television, Nie said that by conducting this study, "We hope we can give society a chance to talk through some of these issues before the changes take place."
No one disputed Nie's point that the Internet is already having an enormous impact on the lives of individuals and groups who use it, but many other scholars suggested that Nie's conclusions were either too dramatic or quite possibly wrong.
Amitai Etzioni, a social theorist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is one of them. He noted that "it's true by definition that if you're spending more hours hitting the keyboard, you're not spending time with other people." But, he continued, "people do form very strong relations over the Internet, and many of them are relations that they could not find any other way."
The debate between the authors of the Stanford study and those who dissent from its findings has not yet led to any final conclusions, but it does suggest three lessons about the future impact of the Internet on social and political organizations.
First, however desirable it might be, no one knows enough to be able to effectively limit the impact of this revolutionary new technology or to plan for its consequences. Virtually all of those participating in the new debate are drawing on what they know from the past in order to make predictions about the future.
The history of all previous technological innovations suggests that such predictions are unlikely to prove to be true or at least true in the way that their authors intend.
Second, the Internet is going to destroy certain kinds of social interaction. By bringing work into the home, it is going to have an impact on family life by reducing still further the interaction of parents and children and thus limiting the traditional means of passing values and ideals from one generation to another.
The rise of mass media and mass higher education began that process after World War II ; the Internet seems likely to continue it. Such a development is likely to undercut many of the traditional bonds -- to the family, to the community, and to the nation state -- on which modern civilization has been thought to depend.
This trend is certain to generate a backlash, but just like such reactions to earlier changes, such resistance is unlikely to be entirely successful.
And third, the Internet is going to create new "virtual" communities of people linked by interests or another kinds of attachments. Some of these are likely to be larger than traditional communities; some much smaller; but many of them may become far more important and valued to those who participate in them than any of the traditional communities in which they grew up.
The rise of such communities will shake up social and political life by detaching the individual from the usual constraints of geography on which human life up to now has been based. But it may also create new forms of social and political organization that will promote both human freedom and those who oppose that freedom.
In short, the Internet seems certain to have a contradictory impact, one that no one is now able to predict in detail but one that already appears likely to justify the use of the much-abused term "revolutionary."