Dec 6th 2007
From The Economist print edition
The internet, supposedly a new realm, is most useful when coupled to the real world
IN THE early days of the internet, the idea that it represented an entirely new and separate realm,
distinct from the real world, was seized upon by both advocates and critics of the new technology.
Advocates liked the idea that the virtual world was a placeless datasphere, liberated from constraints and restrictions of the real world, and an opportunity for a fresh start. This view was expressed most clearly in the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” issued by John Perry Barlow, an internet activist, in February 1996. “Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind,” he thundered. “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Our world is different. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”
Where Mr Barlow and other cyber-Utopians found the separation between the real and virtual worlds exciting, however, critics regarded it as a cause for concern. They worried that people were spending too much time online, communing with people they had never even met in person in chat rooms, virtual game worlds and, more recently, on social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. A study carried out by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society in 2000, for example, found that heavy internet users spent less time talking to friends and family, and warned that the internet could be “the ultimate isolating technology”.
Both groups were wrong, of course. The internet has not turned out to be a thing apart. Unpleasant aspects of the real world, such as taxes, censorship, crime and fraud are now features of the virtual world, too (see Technology Quarterly, in this issue). Gamers who make real money selling swords,...