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Is the Internet Good or Evil?

Louis BaseneseA 22-year-old Newsweek article just resurrected itself, and it’s now going viral.

The article was written by astronomer, Clifford Stoll, and it wonderfully bashes the internet, which was in its infancy in 1995.

Stoll was shockingly accurate in his criticism, saying…

“Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

But wait! There’s plenty more from Stoll, like…

“What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact… Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”

It’s eerily true, isn’t it?

Stoll’s virtually ancient thesis got me thinking…

Is the internet good or evil?

Let’s see what my two superstar analysts believe, and then I’ll weigh in at the end.

Prosperity vs. Anonymity

Jonathan RodriguezThe invention of the internet, along with the World Wide Web — which is just shy of its 30th birthday — have brought people closer together than ever before.

Family members separated by great distance can stay in touch with video chat and social media.

Thanks to the web, once-isolated businesses and economies have access to global capital — and sources of revenue.

Heck, the internet practically created a host of new industries out of thin air: cybersecurity (a $75 billion business), digital media (think $77 billion company Netflix or Apple’s iTunes), and social media — worth $35 billion.

That said, the internet has also unfortunately brought out the dark side of humanity…

The internet is the greatest communication tool known to man.

But like any tool, it can be used for evil…

As humans, we constantly struggle with emotions. Greed, laziness, jealousy, vanity, rage… the list goes on.

The internet brings all of these ugly traits out of us… 140 characters at a time.

Hiding behind anonymity, users are free to say all the things that would otherwise go unsaid in public.

The internet didn’t make people terrible, but it’s a whole lot easier to be a terrible person using it.

Of course, the world is fighting back against “offensive” content on the web.

But as long as a layer exists between a physical person and their digital “self” on the web, the internet will always be a dumping ground for the worst of human emotion.

Jonathan’s Final Call: Even with its inherent downside, there’s no question that the internet is good.

Economy vs. Psychology

Martin HutchinsonDeciding whether the internet is good or evil is difficult. Mainly because it’s a thing.

Like steam engines or electric power, the internet is morally neutral.

But like those two innovations, the internet has revolutionized our lives. For example, it would be impossible for me to write on a wide variety of topics without the internet’s infinite resources of information at my fingertips.

On a more macro scale, global supply chains — whatever their faults — are lifting billions of people out of poverty and would be impossible without the internet and modern telecoms.

Still, you can see the downsides…

The forces lifting Chinese, Indians and Africans have tended to depress the earnings of less skilled Americans, as global living standards flatten.

More important, our interactions with friends and colleagues have become virtual, so we visit people and places less, while surfing online more.

Hutch’s Final Call: Overall, the internet has had a positive economic effect but a negative psychological effect.

A Tenuous Balance

Louis BaseneseAt the risk of being labeled an ill-fated “doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways” that the Book of James warns about… here’s my take…

The internet is most definitely both good and evil.

It’s singlehandedly leveled the playing field for all types of businesses and individuals, increased efficiency, productivity, access to information, the list goes on and on.

However, the same attributes that manifest in positive outcomes, can also manifest in negative outcomes. Like exploitation or the rapid spread of false or dangerous information, to name a few.

In the end, the internet functions as a tool that can be put to good or evil use. It all depends on the user. So companies and individuals need to be responsible users.

Ahead of the tape,

Louis Basenese
Chief Investment Strategist, Wall Street Daily