I try to be a little wary of the idea that progress is always good; that human history is a parade of advances and improvements. Really, some innovations are good and some are not so good.
When it comes to the Internet though, I just can't contain my optimism!!!
My love song for the Internet goes a little like this:
Tyranny thrives on ignorance; so do intolerance and hate and the violence they inspire. The antidote is education, and the Internet can distribute a good dose of it.
Some will argue that the Internet is as good at spreading ignorance as it is at fighting ignorance since people can (and do) post tons of things that are false and wrong. Even wikipedia is riddled with errors. Or if it isn't I've just posted a false statement myself right here. ;^)
But I think that the Internet is a huge boon to educating masses of ordinary people for two main reasons:
1. The Internet gives people access to a wide range of perspectives from outside their own social/comfort zone that they would not have access to otherwise.
2. The Internet trains people to think critically for themselves.
And as a bonus, we have #3: It's so much fun that you end up learning things without even trying to.
Why do I think the Internet encourages people to think for themselves?
Think about how mass media works. Whether it's television, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, etc., you are encouraged to absorb. Sure you might analyze the information you've absorbed, but there's no real motivation to do so. Mass media divides the population into the producers of knowledge and the consumers of it, and never the twain shall meet.
Traditional media encourages the belief that "if it's in print, it's true," or alternately "Accurate unbiased news comes from a few established sources and everything else is the wacky fringe." It costs money to produce and distribute books, TV programs, etc., so media companies typically have an interest in building a reputation for being accurate and unbiased in order to build an audience. That's a good thing, but it means that if you question every newscast -- complaining about how much they aren't telling you -- the average person will lump you in the same category with crackpot conspiracy theorists.
Really it's better to keep in mind that there's an ocean of stories out there that aren't covered by the trickle of the standard media stream. Traditional news sources deserve your respect inasmuch as they earn it with careful, thorough reporting. But even when reading the big stories from reputable sources, it's beneficial to see multiple perspectives side-by-side (as you get in response to a search query or see in the comments of a blog entry). It forces you to assess for yourself who is the most credible and whose arguments make the most sense. It trains you pick up on hints of bias in even largely unbiased sources.
What's more, if you participate in blogs and forums, you get immediate positive feedback for coming up with original, intelligent, and insightful comments. You also get immediate positive feedback for thinking your ideas through carefully so you can express them clearly and concisely. Rambling or regurgitating an undigested party line will get your comments ignored. The result is daily exercise for your critical thinking skills.
Some people only like to frequent sites that cater to their own point of view. This encourages groupthink if the site succeeds in suppressing other viewpoints. However, on the Internet you're really never more than a click or two away from an opposing view, and many are tempted to make those few stray clicks. Additionally, even sites that cater to one viewpoint typically allow opposing comments: as a close-at-hand example, look at how the members of the Bloggernacle and of Outer Blogness cross-post on each other's blogs.
On the Internet, you're constantly presented with unfamiliar viewpoints even if you're not actively looking for them. Here's a typical example taken from my everyday blog reading. The permabloggers -- all with a similar background to each other -- were discussing violence in the Middle East with an understandable American "it's far away" attitude when they were confronted by someone with personal friends in the middle East urging them to remember that the "collateral damage" civilians are people too.
In blog-and-forum-space, you're encouraged to respond to unfamiliar viewpoints. That requires you to think about them and about your own position.
Now you might be saying "Chanson, you crazy optimist you -- most people are not discussing serious issues or current events at all online: they're exchanging pokemons and celebrity gossip!!!"
I contend that even reading and posting nothing but fluff to the Internet trains people to broaden their horizons.
Regardless of what everyone says about the deplorable spelling, grammar, and punctuation on the Internet, regular exercise at reading and writing improves one's composition skills.
More importantly -- even if your activities on the Internet are purely social -- you will almost certainly be socializing with people outside your usual real-life social boundaries. By that I mean you'll make friends people who are different from you in one or more of the following ways: economic class, education level, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, age, and other similar social barriers that make it unlikely you would have met your Internet friends in real life. And no matter how open and tolerant you are intellectually, it is nearly impossible to learn deep down that those outside your familiar group are just ordinary people like you unless you actually meet them. There's no substitute for it -- it's the true antidote for bigotry.
I'll bet your "think for yourself" reflex is kicking in right now. You disagree with me? Then you're planning your insightful objection in your mind, working out just the right way to phrase it. Then you'll post it and everyone can decide what they think of your position.
If you were reading this in a magazine, that wouldn't be the case.