I once read an article which said something like “If you had presented a Victorian lady or gentleman with the idea of a device which fitted in the palm of your hand and could give you almost immediate access to the sum total of human knowledge, they would never imagine that people would use it to insult strangers and watch videos of cats.”
That is wrong, of course, it is exactly what the Victorians would have expected ‘the lower classes’ to do, and they would have fought tooth and nail to prevent those classes getting access to the internet. That is why it took such a long tie for universal education to be brought in. The idea that the lower classes would utilise their new reading skills to access ‘immoral’ or ‘seditious’ material.
Jump forward, and Lord Reith, the legendary first Director-General of the BBC, saw the ‘wireless’ as a way to ‘improve’ the working classes by exposing them to middle-class culture -’inform, educate and entertain’, in that order. It was he who forbade the BBCs’ regional studios from broadcasting programmes and employing announcers using local accents and dialect, enforcing the use of Received Pronunciation, or ‘BBC English’ in an attempt to unify accents across the country.
All of this ran aground on one simple fact. The overwhelmingly large majority of people are as thick as two short planks and have the attention span of a brain-damaged mayfly. Even when most of them were literate, they preferred sport and pubs to books, and when they read it was papers or magazines, or ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. Sentimental romances or bawdy tales, ghost stories or the adventures of highwaymen and so forth. This at the same time that some of the greatest works of literature were published.
When TV became widely available, the majority of people watched soap operas, sitcoms and drama programmes centred around detectives, doctors or spies. Nowadays they watch game shows and reality TV. But there is, and has always been, high quality TV. An endless supply of superb wildlife, scientific, political, historical and social documentaries. High-quality drama, quirky comedy and the odd little gems one finds tucked into the corners of BBC4.
The internet is much the same. Yes, social media can be beyond irritating, but you don’t have to sign up for it -I don’t have a Twitter or Instagram account, and my Facebook hasn’t been used in months. But it provides a boon to business and is a blessing for those who need up-to-date research. It provides my disabled wife with endless amusement. Streaming services can give those with children a blessed hour or so of quiet on a rainy day -time to clear up the mess from the cooking or painting or model-making session while the kids watch Wreck-It Ralph or The Snail and the Whale again. My daughter is a working single mum, so internet shopping gives her the chance to browse and buy groceries free from the panic of keeping an eye on two lively kids in a busy supermarket after a day at work, with the result that said kids get a more balanced diet and no essentials get forgotten.
The stupid will always be stupid. “If simple folk are free from fear and care, simple they will be.” Mess them about, try to improve them, try to get them to take responsibility, tell them stuff they don’t want to hear and they get mulish and elect Donald Trump in between searching for cat memes.
The problem isn’t the internet, it’s people. It’s always people.