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Internet Shows Humans In A New Light

June 8, 2010

With a quarter of the human race now online, the Internet is bringing out a new spirit of collaboration and co-operation among people across the planet to tackle some of the great challenges we face as a species.

This is one of the themes explored in a major new international book, launched today (June 8) by Mr Michael Malone, CEO of Australian internet service provider iiNet., “The Internet: An Introduction to New Media”, by Professor Lelia Green of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) and Edith Cowan University.

“The Internet is demonstrating that people are huge collaborators, not just the competitors we sometimes like to see ourselves as. Wikipedia, Facebook and open source are all examples of how people are using the Internet to share ideas, help, support and befriend one another across the globe.

“Nowadays people log on to be sociable, just as much as they do to obtain information,” she says.

But people are also logging on to understand more about each other’s cultures, to defuse international tensions, and to join hands globally in tackling problems like climate change, disease, poverty and resource scarcity, Prof Green adds.

Spanning a vast canvas, “The Internet: An Introduction to New Media” takes the reader from the origins of the Internet to its emerging future, addressing its contribution to society, government and individuals and exploring the different technological, political, economic and global contexts that frame everyday use. In particular the book traces how the internet has passed from the control of technological elites into the hands of ordinary people around the world.

Today the Internet is bridging cultures, language barriers, continents, belief systems and individual interests in a way that no other activity, trade, travel or media environment can approach, Lelia says.

“People are using the Internet to build society and social capital ““ but I am very concerned that governments are starting to view it as a new form of power, and are seeking ways to control it.”

This is currently playing out in Australia over the issue of the Rudd Government’s plans to censor the Internet, she says. “You have the curious position of Australia, a leading democracy, taking action that so far has only been sanctioned by countries such as China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to restrict access to the Internet for its citizens. This is deeply disturbing to other democracies ““ and a lonely path for Australia to follow.

“The Internet allows humanity to express ourselves in all our shades of light and darkness ““ but we can’t ban it because we are frightened of what it tells us about ourselves. Tolerance lies at the heart of a healthy society,” she says. “Rather we need to find the rights checks and balances that will discourage illegal or malignant behaviour online ““ as we do in other spheres of human activity.”

Adults and children worry about different aspects of children’s web use, Lelia says. Children worry about cyber bullying, identity theft and spam. Adults worry about pornography, stranger danger and internet addiction.
New research from the US Crimes Against Children Research Centre, included in a recent Harvard University study, has found that rather than the Internet encouraging paedophilia, there had in fact been a 53 per cent fall in the rate of sexual offences against US children between 1992 and 2006, and that children may be less at risk of predatory behaviour than before the Internet arrived. “We need to find out why ““ maybe the Internet is helping to raise awareness of the issue and people are taking better precautions. We don’t know. But we need to find out answers to questions like these before we assume that the internet is part of the problem.”

There is also new evidence that other stereotypes of internet use are wrong: “Research is finding that online game play is associated with educational achievement and problem solving. Gamers are in fact more likely to be social, teamwork-oriented and have good relationships with friends and family, than the recluses they are sometimes depicted as,” she says.

“But we do need to keep on top of issues like cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. These can be absolutely devastating for the individual affected, as there is very little you can do about something that has been published about you on the Internet. As the experience of a friend shows, it can colour your life for years.”

Lelia says that the Internet ““ as with all communication technologies in their diffusion phase ““ is the focus of intense social interest and concern. Politicians, lawyers, corporations, opinion-leaders, educators, parents and consumers debate issues of control, access, regulation, dis/advantage, cultural imperialism and the economic implications of the techno-system.

“Whilst it is evident that the Internet supports new ways of seeking information and relating to others socially, there is little evidence that this technology is rewriting human society and sociability any more than did television, radio or the invention of printing. Instead, the Internet offers new ways through which different social entities (both nation-based and interest-based) can connect and express themselves. It offers us new ways to join hands to overcome the really large, planetary challenges we will face in this century.”

Lelia Green is Professor of Communications at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia and Australian co-author on the UN-sponsored Digital Review of Asia-Pacific. Working with contributors from across the Asia-Pacific, Lelia has developed a deep understanding of different ways in which people relate to the Internet, reflecting a broad spread of cultural, economic and political contexts. Lelia was first Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council-funded study of the “ËœInternet in (Australian) family life’, carried out from 2002-05 and an International Advisory Panel member for the European Community’s EU Kids Online I project.

“The Internet: An Introduction to New Media”, by Lelia Green is published by Berg New Media and is available from http://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=10544&v=1866912. The Australian distributor until the end of August is InBooks (orders@inbooks.com.au), while from September it will be Allen & Unwin.

The ARC Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) is helping to build a creative Australia through cutting edge research spanning the creative industries, media and communications, arts, cultural studies, law, information technology, education and business.

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