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How the internet is changing us

In 1850, a Frenchman, Jules Allix, published a paper on a remarkable invention that would facilitate “universal and instantaneous communication of thoughts, at any distance.” The invention consisted of two disconnected portable boxes with metal troughs. And in each of these troughs a snail. It was based on the premise that two snails that have mated remain mysteriously connected throughout their lives by an invisible escargotic fluid.

So this is how the invention works: When one of the snails in the box that docked with the one in the other box is manipulated, it causes its partner to move. By manipulating snails in numerous boxes corresponding to the French alphabet, one could relay messages from snails in one set of boxes to their partners in the other, regardless of the distance between the two sets of boxes.

Allix promised that with this device, “all people will be able to instantly correspond with each other, however far they are placed, man to man, or several men at once, in every corner of the world, without relying on the conductive wires of electrical communication, but with the only help of what is basically a portable machine.”

In short, Allix proposed an internet of snails. The idea didn’t work, but it spectacularly underlined how innate our need for interconnectivity was and how far along that need existed. When the Internet as we know it came into existence, the world finally became a network in the way that Allix had always dreamed of; it was interconnectivity on steroids. The dream was that unhindered communication would make us one community. There would be no caste or class distinctions on the Internet. There would be no rich or poor, silent or garrulous, intelligent or stupid, strong or weak…. You could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, building a persona that bears little resemblance to who you were in the “outside” world.

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We should have known that such a utopia could never exist. When big tech started monetizing the freedom on which the internet was built, there was a price to be paid. “Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and empowers society to get better over time,” said Mark Zuckerberg in his famous Georgetown address.

Even if he offered freedom of speech, the trade-off was freedom of self-protection. Your data has been collected, your privacy compromised and your personality reduced to an advertising revenue model and algorithm.

In this pack, we want to document the monumental changes that the Internet has brought to our lives. These are changes that we are all aware of, but the more obvious something is, the more it goes unnoticed. When we ask an existential question in one story (“Will you really be yourself in the metaverse?”), in another, we document the arc of societal change through something as elementary as the portrayal of sex on OTT. From the mental health of a social media influencer to what the emoticons we use say about us, we follow the way the internet is inside us, just like we are on the internet.

Those of us who saw a time before the internet quickly become fossils. The world now belongs to the digital natives: those who were born and raised on the internet. They can never be weaned off of it. It reset their hardware and their software. All we can ask of them is to treat us with sympathy. We may not have watched BTS on YouTube, but we did listen to the Beatles on an archaic piece of technology known as a Walkman. And what John Lennon memorably sang could have been our dream for the internet: “Imagine all the people living for today…Imagine there are no countries, nothing to kill or die for…Imagine for there be no possessions, no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man … I hope that one day you will join us … and that the world will live as one.”

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