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Is the Internet evil?

June 2008

I met a charming lady at a party the other day, but when I told her what I do she stepped back and held up her hands in horror.  “How awful” she said “that you should waste your time like that.  The internet is a dreadful thing; I won’t have it in the house.”

I protested rather weakly, but she was adamant – there is no good in it, she said, and no good will come from it.  But it worried me for a moment; is she right?

I doubt it.  I think her mistake is that she had a notion that the internet simply involves looking at websites, and she didn’t like the sound of some of them. 

However, despite the fact that we can use the internet to look up how well a friend did in the London Marathon or print our own stamps  what is astonishing is the positive effect it has had on some old fashioned non-digital industries.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the recorded music industry.  Because it is now possible to make identical copies of all recorded music, with no reduction in quality, the value of recorded music has plummeted almost to the point of it having no value at all.

If you don’t believe me, find a sub-25 year old with an iPod or laptop bulging with music (thousands of songs, probably) and ask them when it was they last actually paid anything for some music.

I promise you, there will be a long pause, and in all likelihood they will not be able to remember when it was.

This has forced the music industry to seek its income from other sources, and the big winner is the performing musician.  If you ask the same sub-25 year old to add up what they have spent on going to live music in the last year, you might be surprised at how much it is.  Suddenly, the music industry has remembered the way they used to make money; performances can not be duplicated, and people will pay to see a good show.  And it’s all because of the internet.

Think also of the second hand book trade.  It is an astonishing fact that in this highly digital age, many, many more second hand books are being sold than was the case ten years ago – not, generally, from dusty shops in the back streets, but from the thousands of small traders who are able to reach their customers through sites like Amazon and eBay.

Or consider the travel industry.  We now book our railway tickets, airline tickets, and hotels online; it’s easier to find what you want, research a place to visit, read reviews from other travellers (have a look at tripadvisor, for example) and seek out the best deal.  As a result, the travel industry is booming, having discovered a whole raft of new customers that would never have come its way without the internet.

Also, strangely enough in this email age, there has been a huge growth in employment in delivery services, including the Royal Mail, delivering all those books, clothes and other stuff bought online.  It’s growth that has only happened because of the internet.

So that’s the odd thing – look who is benefitting from this high-tech horror that is the internet – lovely pre-digital things like musicians, second hand book sellers and postmen.  Even the lady I met at the party would agree that all three are “good things”.  The Internet has given them all a very much needed boost, so perhaps it’s not as evil as she thinks it is.