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COVID-19, America, and the Dangers of Being Connected

Assignment 4

75 Billion Devices Will Be Connected To The Internet By ...

In Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics, he describes the open sea to “compensate for every social, religious and moral constraint, for every political and economic oppression, even for the physical laws due to the earth’s gravity, to continental crampedness” (Virilio 65). In many ways, this relates to how many viewed the Internet at the time of its introduction to people’s home machines. The Internet was supposed to represent a rebirth for information; it would allow people to access any type of knowledge that they wanted, connect individuals from across the country, and serve as a medium to share your ideas and stories. And it certainly has, allowing information to travel at an unprecedented rate and people to connect from all over the world.

This can be compared to the shifting paradigm of the Renaissance. With the advances in transportation and spread of information, the world became more connected during the Renaissance. Just as the Internet represented a rebirth of information, the Renaissance experienced a rebirth of thought that was reflected in art, architecture, innovations, and many other establishments.

But the ‘open sea’, as Virilio describes, does not only free people from oppression and physical barriers; the open sea “became the right to crime, to a violence that was also freed from every constraint” (Virilio 65). The freedom of the open sea did not just serve as a medium for free travel and thought, but an expansion of violence and war. The changes of the Renaissance reflects this as well; along with innovations in medicine, art forms, and transportation, there were innovations in war. Weapons became deadlier, easier to use, and more indiscriminate with who they targeted. 

The expansion of the Internet and the freedom of knowledge is no exception to this behavior, and the way America is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic reflects it. America has fairly liberal laws on Internet usage, and while this has allowed the spread of ideas and knowledge, it has been just as good at spreading disinformation. During this pandemic, many people have been helped by looking at trustworthy websites (such as the Center for Disease Control’s website) to learn more about how to stay safe and how to avoid endangering themselves and others. But many have turned to the Internet to look for what they want to hear; that the disease is fake, that it is a conspiracy, that the virus is ‘not as lethal’ as the CDC warns. This type of information, found in tabloids and conspiracy videos and certain online communities, is just as proliferous as information from reputable sources. This type of misinformation is not without consequence; with armed protests happening in many cities and groups of people refusing to quarantine, these people pose a serious threat to all Americans. In one of his notebooks, da Vinci wrote, “Let no man who is not a mathematician read the elements of my work” (da Vinci 9). As elitist and highbrow as it sounds, it has some truth given our current situation- many times people will read legitimate information, but will not have the proper background to realize its legitimacy or use it in a productive way.

This severe response and militant disbelief serves as a haunting reflection of what the open Internet serves for in democratic countries. Compared to other countries, America’s internet is relatively ‘free’, and government censorship is limited. In response, the media and the Internet has been flooded with misinformation and biased pieces that are passed off as ‘news’. Instead of using technology to get educated, most people use our many sources of information to confirm their long-standing biases. This is a stark contrast to authoritarian-ruled countries like China, where the Internet is heavily censored and technology is used as a government tool to control their population. This heavily controlled Internet is easily able to control massive groups of people by only allowing government-approved ‘truths’. And while this does not fit the idea of the ‘open sea’ as Virilio imagined it, this type of control has worked frighteningly well during the COVID-19 pandemic with many areas of China having quarantine restrictions lifted already.

While the outbreak is far from over, I hope America’s response will put our usage of the Internet in speculation again. This incident, and many incidents before now, have shown that misinformation is extremely dangerous, and that the spread of conspiracies and biased articles have deadly consequences. Only by addressing these problems can we prove that the Internet can be used as a free, open medium to spread thoughts and knowledge instead of being a favorable tool to control the public.

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