As the University is in the process of reforming its undergraduate education requirements, mainly the Introduction to the Humanities program, we see at least one academic field that is currently under-addressed at Stanford: the Internet. As college students, we tend to spend hours per week on the Internet, but many of us have little formal knowledge of the technology and its consequences for America and the broader world.
The Internet may very well be the defining innovation for the 21st century. If the goal of liberal education is to prepare students for a lifetime of critical thinking, it is crucial that students gain a deeper understanding of not only the technical details, but also the political, legal and social implications for the technology that is sweeping the world. For those who already know a lot about the technical aspects of the Internet, providing a broader education on the subject can be empowering. Take, for instance, the promises of online education in remote areas. On the other side, it is also necessary that future political leaders, and the voters who elect them, have an adequate working knowledge of the Internet.
Given the recent floundering of the Protect IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act (PIPA and SOPA, respectively) on Capitol Hill, the case for widespread Internet education only becomes stronger. Regardless of whether one agrees with the general goals of the legislation, the general consensus is that they are vaguely worded and misguided in their approach. Politicians have never been regarded as experts on the Internet. Some Congressmen even bragged about how they were not “nerds” and therefore could not critique the legislation, yet many of these legislators were supporters of the initial bill. Whereas once it may have been endearing for George W. Bush to refer to the technology as “the Internets,” it is now simply reckless for politicians to hold so much power over the future course of a technology they admit to knowing little about. The general ignorance of these legislators leaves them particularly vulnerable to the influence of corporate lobbyists interested in promoting their industries with little regard for others. Although it is reasonable to hope that future politicians will be more thoroughly informed on the Internet, why leave this to chance?
Many believe that politicians were, at least initially, misled by lobbyists from Hollywood and the pharmaceutical industries. But one should also realize that the vast majority of citizens, many of whom possess about the same knowledge on the Internet as the aforementioned politicians, were predominantly informed by sources on the Internet which, unsurprisingly, have a strong stake to keep the Internet as unregulated as possible. The coverage on SOPA/PIPA was dominated by online entities like Reddit and the cyber-libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cary Sherman, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America, argued,“It’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform.” Regardless of whether one thinks Internet powerhouses were promulgating “misinformation,” one should be apprehensive that thousands of citizens were informed predominantly by pro-Internet interests who have almost nothing to gain by government involvement in their preferred medium.
For these reasons, it is not only crucial that the traditional media narrow the information gap with tech journalists, but that citizens across the board gain enough fluency to understand future Internet legislation and form their own opinions on the proper role of government involvement on the Internet. For now, we should probably be glad that the Internet leaders opposed the legislation as strongly as they did in order to stall the momentum of the legislation. But these debates will not stop. And future legislation, though it may harm some Internet corporations, might actually improve the Internet as a whole. In those instances, the general populace will benefit greatly from having politicians who are well versed in the Internet, expert journalists who do not have a significant financial or ideological stake in the technology, and a citizenry that is able to decipher the arguments made by both sides.