The Chronicle Review

The Internet Will Set You Free

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

It doesn't take remarkable insight to suggest that the defining idea of the coming decade will be the Internet. The Internet's significance is already apparent, especially in higher education. Everyone now has access to the resources of the world's greatest libraries. Collaborating with distant colleagues, and keeping up on the latest developments in your field, has become much easier. Some scientists and other scholars now publish their findings online, rather than wait for a response from a peer-reviewed journal. If you are in the social sciences, the Internet brings you millions of research subjects.

Similarly, the number of possible students has exploded as more online courses are offered, and students in developing countries can now take courses with the world's best teachers from elite universities. The cost—both financial and environmental—of giving students access to what they need to read has dropped, as more materials can be read online or posted on a course Web site. These trends will progress further; yet they will be among the less significant changes that the Internet brings about.

Over the next decade, closed cultures will find it increasingly difficult to keep their members from seeing and contacting people who live in more open societies. The grip once held by a few media owners over what reaches the public has been irreversibly loosened by independent bloggers and reporters who are read by millions. Web sites like WikiLeaks disseminate leaked documents and cause severe embarrassment to governments around the world. An Iranian lawyer has used the Internet to bring international attention to the case of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for the "crime" of adultery. At the time of this writing, it appears that the protests have succeeded in averting the carrying out of the sentence.

The biggest unknown is how far and how fast access to the Internet will spread. Mobile phones have already proved to be enormously beneficial for people in developing countries that lack the infrastructure for landlines. To give just one example, mobile phones have freed poor rural farmers from dependence on price information supplied by the merchants who buy their crops. The farmers now have independent ways of determining market prices. The Internet will make even greater strides as a tool that empowers the world's poor, but only if we can find a way to provide cheap and easy Internet access in developing countries. Will that happen? I hope so. One thing is certain: We will continue to be surprised at how relatively simple changes in technology bring about fundamental changes in the way we live. 

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University.