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Older generations must deal with realities of a web-focused world

A new book says controlling the internet is a waste of time - embracing its value is the only way forward.

Ben Hammersley is an expert who advises British Prime Minister David Cameron on internet policy. Anna Soderblom
Ben Hammersley is an expert who advises British Prime Minister David Cameron on internet policy. Anna Soderblom

A new book says controlling the internet is a waste of time - embracing its value is the only way forward.

Perhaps the most trenchant quote to appear on the pages of Saloon this year was delivered by the novelist Douglas Coupland.

Interviewed while appearing as a guest speaker at April's Art Dubai event, the Canadian author of Generation X declared that he missed his "pre-internet brain".

For anyone of sufficient age to remember the days before the words "Google" and "friend" became verbs, this is a common sentiment.

Back in December 1990, when British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee switched on the first Web server, few could have foreseen the social, economic and political effect it would have on our lives.

Since then, the internet has laid waste to some long-standing industries, had a hand in overthrowing governments and, as Coupland bemoaned, altered our cognitive processes by largely making redundant the need to memorise facts.

Just ask any newspaper publisher, record shop owner or indeed deposed dictator, if you doubt the veracity of that statement. Clearly, then, it's not just their mindsets that they're nostalgic for, but the simplicity of the pre-digital world itself.

However, as one of Britain's foremost authorities on the internet, Ben Hammersley, 36, pours scorn on anyone who yearns for yesteryear.

Hammersley, previously a technology writer for The Times and Guardian newspapers, is now the man the British prime minister, David Cameron, turns to for advice about online issues.

And while flitting around the corridors of power, he's garnered first-hand evidence that those who occupy these realms are both confused and panicked by the changes evolving before them.

In an attempt to allay their fears, he's condensed his expertise into his book, 64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then, a whistle-stop tour of the most common misconceptions about the digital era. He explains: "The problem is that we've entrusted our future to people who are confused by the present. So I was going into consultancy work or going to advise politicians and the first few meetings were basically bringing them up to speed that we were in the year 2012.

"I've realised that an awful lot of arguments and discussions around the internet ... are complicated by the fact that the people in power, by the fact of their age and background, don't really have a complete understanding of this technology and its ramifications."

Essentially, there is a generational divide between people in their 50s and 60s and those in their 20s and 30s: "The two don't see eye to eye, because one generation is radically digital and the other isn't."

So, as they struggle to cope with the concepts and implications of new phenomena such as social networking or hacktivism, they immediately act in a reactionary way.

Examples that Hammersley alludes to in his book include President Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian government switching off the internet to try to silence dissidents during last year's uprising, or the German publisher of Harry Potter launching a legal bid to take down an unauthorised translation of the book from the Web.

But actions such as shutting down or blocking Websites, or indeed the internet as a whole, are futile, he claims, as the Web's very nature makes this impossible.

"The fundamental architecture of the internet means that if you accept it at all, you have to accept everything," he contends. "It brings prosperity, knowledge and development and so on, but with that it does bring everything else.

"Because no one has come across a system that can be controlled, so it's difficult for a lot of countries, corporations and organisations who don't quite realise that some things are technically impossible."

For example, the blanket ban on the internet in Egypt just aroused people's wrath further and they turned to solutions such as Virtual Private Networks and old-fashioned dial-up internet connections to bypass the lockdown. In fact, Hammersley goes one step further, claiming that it was the advances in digital technology that made the 2011 revolutions across the Middle East possible.

"I don't believe the Arab Spring would have happened without the internet," he says. "The internet enables very easy group forming. So, whatever your predilections, you can find someone out there who shares these with you, irrespective of geography or time.

"This has massive benefits, both for leisure interests and political movements, so it's very difficult to find you're the only person in the world who's into a political thing. Whereas before, you could be the only person in your town, your country or your continent who was into this thing.

"But the quality of the internet that made the Arab Spring possible was exactly the same quality that made [online] knitting clubs possible, or enables people who are into Buffy the Vampire Slayer to communicate."

As well as expediting the convergence of like-minded individuals, the internet's other threat to the status quo is what Hammersley calls its "uncensorability".

For example, 11 years ago this month, the file-sharing website Napster was shut-down under the weight of numerous legal injunctions. But far from ending the illegal sharing of music, as record companies expected, the practice has grown exponentially, with numerous other sites springing up to replace it.

And, of course, as online piracy continues unabated, many in the entertainment industry state that it is killing off creativity by cheating artists out of their livelihoods. Again, not so, argues Hammersley.

"It's completely the opposite. Anyone who says that [the internet] is killing culture or killing creativity is an idiot," he states. "Not only is it vastly promoting all of the traditional cultures but it's also creating whole new cultures and whole new possibilities.

"What it might be doing is damaging some cultural industries, but that's not the same as damaging culture."

So, with many record labels and music stores verging on bankruptcy, Hammersley argues: "These aren't music, they are just businesses selling bits of plastic."

He cites the example of YouTube, which has an estimated 36 hours worth of video and music uploaded to it every minute of the day.

"Of course, 99.9 per cent of that is nonsense," he admits. "But it's still culture, it's still stuff being made. And the same is true for fiction or photography.

"Really, it's a lot of old people whining that their monopolies have gone away, that they suddenly have competition and it's competition that they don't understand."

So, while the digital world still provokes fear and anger because of its pervasiveness and its ability to disrupt entrenched power systems on a massive scale, Hammersley's message is to just accept it and adapt.

"Any attempt to roll back internet freedom by the digitally illiterate would be a terrible waste of time, effort and money," he states.

And as he concludes in his book: "[The internet] is the essence of the world we live in, the dominant paradigm for all social, cultural and economic interactions in the 21st century. The internet has shaped us and will continue to define the contours of our endeavours for the foreseeable future. It is us and we are it."

In other words, your pre-internet brain is gone. Now deal with it.

Hugo Berger is a features writer at The National