Editorial Board

The Internet Was a Good Idea (In Case You Were Wondering)

A new report says the upsides of progress may be oversold. It's half right.

The kids love it.

Photographer: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Much like the humans who invented it, the Internet is both wonderful and terrible. It creates and destroys, empowers and represses, edifies and stultifies -- often at the same time.

A new report from the World Bank finds a few more things to worry about: The Internet disproportionately benefits the well-to-do, may worsen inequality, hasn't boosted productivity as much as hoped, tends to favor monopolies, and is "far from sufficient" for alleviating poverty.

You might say that's a pretty high bar for a technology that's only a few decades old. Even so, the report is a reminder that no technology is an unvarnished good, and that progress has consequences -- often quite unexpected ones.

The report is also clear on the Internet's benefits. But the authors warn, sensibly enough, that taking full advantage of them requires things such as good infrastructure, prudent regulations, better education and responsive governance -- the same things needed for any kind of development.

The notable wrinkle they add is that digital technology can amplify the effects of bad policy. Poorly designed business regulation can give Internet companies excessive market power, thus inhibiting competition and harming consumers. Failing schools become more of a liability when people have to compete with robots for low-skilled work. And unaccountable dictators find that the Internet is an awfully convenient tool for control.

In short, the perils of digital technology -- like much else in life -- fall most heavily on the vulnerable.

This is still no reason to resist the Internet, as if you could, or to punish its purveyors. For all its faults, digital technology is still an extraordinary force for growth, inventiveness and problem solving around the world. But ensuring that its benefits are widely shared, and that its drawbacks are mitigated, requires some astute policy making.

It's an increasingly salient lesson as technological change accelerates. Cars will drive themselves, drones will deliver your groceries, and robots will fold your laundry. Have you heard about Google's plan for immortality?

But many people will also lose their jobs, replaced by algorithms and automation. Others will suffer from the many anxieties that plague the social media age. The Web will polarize and trivialize. Your children will spend dinnertime on their smartphones. And you probably don't want to dwell too long on Stephen Hawking's thoughts on artificial intelligence.

On balance, the benefits of digital technology far outweigh its drawbacks, especially in the developing world. But the drawbacks are nonetheless real. Every so often it's useful to be reminded of that.