Think, for a moment, of the breathtaking pace of its takeover. Instant messaging has long supplanted the crafted epistle (or even the email) as the vehicle of communication. For prose, read ping!
The family photo album is a mere footnote to a smartphone’s repertoire. For reporters, like this one, search engines have muscled aside the dusty clippings libraries that once represented a newspaper’s collective memory. (Human memory may be going the same way: For gray matter, read Google!)
Newspapers themselves confront a comparable threat of obsolescence, and anyone who stands in the path of their demise is likely to go with them.
Full disclosure: My job binds me closely to the web. This article is destined to appear in digital form long before it is printed on paper. Each day, my mission is to inject the meteoric increments of the 24-hour news cycle into the vast galaxy of NYTimes.com. No Luddite I.
But, many years after telex machines (who remembers them?) were consigned to the scrapheaps of superseded technology, it is hard to avoid the question of who has gained the upper hand.
If the web was once depicted as a guarantor of free expression, its liberty is now in jeopardy. As much as authoritarian governments seek to tame its freedom, its very openness and ubiquity facilitate industrial-scale data-scooping, supposedly to promote the national security of democratic societies.
The vulnerability is as evident on the broad canvas of web surveillance — exposed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden — as in the finer grain of cyberbullying and the abuse of the Internet to peddle untruth and insult.
“The rapid evolution of the Net has been made possible by the open and flexible model by which it has evolved and been governed. But increasingly this is coming under attack,” Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, said at the launch of a new panel on Internet governance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “And this is happening as issues of Net freedom, Net security and Net surveillance are increasingly debated.”
Coincidentally, on the same day, Stan Collymore, a former England soccer player, complained of a proliferation of “anti-Semitic abuse, racist abuse, homophobic abuse, sexist abuse, anti-disability abuse” on Twitter.
The Internet may have freed many to disburden themselves of their views. But it has exposed them, too, to abuse by the few.
At the same time, traditional newspapers face an array of challenges posed by the outriders of the web — falling advertising revenues, revolutionary changes in the global flow of information and public reluctance to pay the enormous costs of assembling and disseminating reliable news.
That last item is perhaps the category that most concerns the news business, including publishers, reporters and editors. Each day the web evolves, creating new narrative vehicles — like BuzzFeed, Politico, Alternet and GlobalPost. In response, older websites strain to embrace innovation that will lure readers, subscribers or advertisers.
Somehow, though, the idea of paying the cost of gathering news has eluded a generation raised on the idea that information is free of financial burdens, and, like the Pony Express, will get through even if the so-called mainstream media is forced out of business.
Yet without income, newspapers cannot sustain a role that is crucial to democracy — speaking truth to power, speaking fact to fiction and spin.
News budgets everywhere are constrained as the ascendancy of the Internet raises questions over the future. It is up to its users — readers and writers alike — to determine how they will be answered.