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February 12, 2010

Author: Web is among world's 'destructive' technologies

Posted: 03:58 PM ET

In the face of constant news about how the Internet connects people and empowers them, Sam Harris provided an interesting and contrarian perspective here at the brainy TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

The eternal skeptic and author of "The End of Faith" responded in this way when I asked him what the most destructive technology on the planet is:

"Increasingly the Internet itself, given our reliance on it, is a source of destructive technology. I think we really have to worry about cyber terrorism and cyber crime increasingly. But there's obviously nuclear proliferation and bio-weapons and chemical weapons."

But the Web isn't completely bad, he said:

"I think it's had two diametrically opposed effects. One effect has been really good. It's created transformation and empowered people and allowed us to debunk bad ideas in a very ... decisive way. It's almost created a cognitive immune system for the planet."

He continued: "It's also empowered pranks and pseudoscience and bad information because every person on the Internet can sort of find the people like them and everyone can find an audience so there are certain forms of ignorance that would more or less be unthinkable without the Internet. Global jihad has been massively empowered by the Internet. Even things like the 911 truth conspiracy. That, to my mind, is an Internet phenomenon. No one would publish those books. This is something that is born of Web sites and Internet commentary."

It's yet to be seen whether technology's overall effect on humanity has been good or bad, he said.

"The final chapter is not written on that. It's made it much better and yet it's given us the power to make it worse. It's conceivable that if we fail to build a truly viable global civilization we could use technology to immiserate ourselves more deeply than we would have had we not invented the technology."

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Filed under: Internet • technology • TED2010

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Jason   February 12th, 2010 5:43 pm ET

What is the '911 truth conspiracy'? Sounds like Mr. Harris is not as big a fan of skepticism as he claims.

There are many unanswered questions about 9/11 that do not involve the gummint blowing up buildings. Many in the "truth" movement are just looking for answers to some pretty straightforward questions.

anonymous   February 12th, 2010 5:44 pm ET

what a tit.
he should have read some more about what the internet really is,
perhaps even open a browser now and then..

JT   February 12th, 2010 5:44 pm ET

This is a very "glass half empty" view, Mr. Harris may as well be saying Mother Nature is the most destructive technology. The reality is that the internet is neither destructive nor inventive in of itself, it's merely an incredibly powerful, unique, and all-inviting tool. It is egalitarian and elitist at the same time. Its potential has changed the world, and it is truly up to the users of it to decide how to use it creatively, whether for their betterment or for their destruction. On the internet, just as any individual can become a star overnight, or a thief in their spare time, one can become powerfully vigilant in a manner few real-world opportunities provide.

Tom Psillas   February 12th, 2010 5:46 pm ET

I agree with John, to a point. The web is only as good as we police it, just like any other venue.
You cannot put anything you want on TV. Eventually, I see the web will change, as governments get a better handle on what needs to be done to protect the public. Currently, many governments are in a fiscal crisis, so I do not expect any progress over the next 4-5 years.
But, the Internet is only a media tool, combining TV and telephones.
I talk about these topics on my blogs on:

MisterFweem   February 12th, 2010 5:50 pm ET

This may be a contrarian point of view, but it's certainly not correct. Would "no one" publish the 9/11 conspiracy theories today? Surely not, just as no one would publish "Mein Kampf" nor "The Protocols of the Elders of Israel" back in the day. And while the Internet may facilitate the gathering of like-minded individuals prepared to rail and scowl at anyone who thinks contrary to what they believe, I seem to remember that these kinds of groups existed and functioned quite well before the advent of the World Wide Web.

Jeff , Douglass, KS   February 12th, 2010 5:50 pm ET

Your article is as true as anything I've heard recently. The internet has also increased the tempo of life to the point that time to reflect – both on life's meaning, or how we truly feel about a particular issue or person, to how long a writer must get to reflect on the import of his words and the veracity of his source – have all been sorely damaged.
Yes, there are wonderful things that are born from human interaction. There are also very terrible things.

Roy Chang   February 12th, 2010 5:55 pm ET

I love Sam.

John   February 12th, 2010 5:59 pm ET

I am sure people said the same things about the telephone too!

Eli   February 12th, 2010 6:02 pm ET

To say your not into using the web is like saying you don't like using the phone.

Xr8eD   February 12th, 2010 6:11 pm ET

I have grown up right along side the internet. I was there using 2400 baud rate modems for a dial up connection to my local school district. The program "Gopher" was the search engine and the entire network was text based.

Seeing how far it has some in such a short time is both incredible and has made me feel uneasy.

I have taken the last 20 years of my life and have taught myself to use each level of technology as it came into existance. Learning in this way has also gave me a certain appreciation for being able to use this sea of information. I am comfortable knowing how to operate and use this tool for my greater good. I am not happy with people who use this tool for evil.

Its just like the movies where a power is given to the people and they must decide how to use it. This tool in the wrong hands can be very destructive and too many people today use it for just that. Destruction in the form of Identity theft, Fraud and even cheating.

I recently read a story about how MySpace and other social networking sites have destroyed relationships and ended marriges.

The Taliban use this tool to spred thier propaganda to eager audiences.

This powerful tool can be used for either good or evil and it is still the choice of the people in how they use it.

Jared   February 12th, 2010 6:12 pm ET

"...there are certain forms of ignorance that would more or less be unthinkable without the Internet."

I disagree with that statement. First, no amount of ignorance is unthinkable – we're talking about humanity here, so ignorance is truly boundless. You don't have to pour over history books very long to convince yourself. Second, I would argue that the internet suppresses ignorance far more than it facilitates it. We have access to information that would have Socrates, Aristotle, and Galileo drooling. Lastly, I'd agree that there are harmful aspects of the internet and our dependency upon technologies that access it, however, it's less due to the technology than it is to the countless limitations and shortcomings of the human race.

Jay   February 12th, 2010 6:22 pm ET

About the most ill-informed statement made by probably the least important person on the planet.

mary   February 12th, 2010 6:22 pm ET

Totally, folks with some of the most nasty and negatitve opinions get to post it and the effects are forever for someone to believe in the written word as truth. I live by the words in "Even cowgirls get the Blues". "I believe in everything, nothing is sacred...I believe in nothing and everything is sacred". In other words, trust no one. That's where we've gotten to Not real far...just a bunch of cynics!!!

IamInk   February 12th, 2010 6:24 pm ET

The basic idea of the internet is to share information. It is a wealth of great knowledge and a great way to communicate. Technology advancement goes hand in hand with the nature of our species. It is human nature to strive to build things for the betterment of our species. No other species on this planet does this.
When you have faith, and trust in something that is not proven, then you are giving up control of yourself. The very basis that you are a religious author is discrediting. I tend to view religion people as being ignorant to a lot of things. Since all Religions are the same and rooted in the same idea, choosing one over another is redundant. We all came from the same place. Ask yourself rather, why is the Catholic church the richest entity on the planet?
To further show your ignorance in the matter of 9/11, people are choosing to follow truth, and nothing more. Our nation was founded on questioning our Government. There is nothing more patriotic then people wanting to find the truth.

Ken, Centreville   February 12th, 2010 6:27 pm ET

The suggestion that Global Jihad or a 911 Truth Conspiracy would *not* exist if there wasn't an Internet is kind of hard to believe. If anything, the Internet gives the peculiar psychosis or ignorance of these "movements" more visibility.

Prior to the Internet, electronic mail, online services, computer conferencing, and computer "bullietin boards" were in use as far back as the early 1980's. So it wasn't as if the appearance of the Internet around 1994 suddenly changed the game entirely. Global data communications, including even "global fax" was very active, and increasingly so, before the Internet appeared.

It's true 'Global jihad has been massively empowered by the Internet. Even things like the 911 truth conspiracy.' But it's not true that they would not have found a global reaching venue without the appearance of the Internet. They would not have found it as easily, or would not have reached as wide an audience, perhaps.

Abe   February 12th, 2010 6:27 pm ET

"It's also empowered pranks and pseudoscience and bad information because every person on the Internet can sort of find the people like them and everyone can find an audience so there are certain forms of ignorance that would more or less be unthinkable without the Internet. "

Wow. I have to agree. I was just saying something similiar to my wife the other night. "I have to imagine, 20 years ago, half the cooky ideas that are running around out there just wouldn't exist because it'd be doubtful they could find a single news outlet to carry it for every fashion of nutjob out there."

Alas, we have the Internet and so here the madness finds its mate.

Dizzy Buzz   February 12th, 2010 6:30 pm ET

One would hope that the overall web effect is a little more complex than merely "two diametrically opposed opposed effects." One good and one bad. See Spot run, Dick and Jane!
If nothing else, let's hope that the web, with it's facts and it's fiction, promotes a healthly sense of skepticism among it's users, which one would hope leads to the development of more evenly balanced opinions in a world that seems unable to progress beyond a "us versus them" mentality.
Then again maybe I should just crack a cold one and take a break from my internet addiction.

Johnny Rocco   February 12th, 2010 6:31 pm ET

Will an internet community become an independent nation? e.g. Facebook, or Twitter.

wow   February 12th, 2010 6:37 pm ET

What is TED?

Is it an attempt to gather all the idiots in the world under one roof?

This man's observation is not only just uninsightful, it is utterly useless, banal, and absurd.

Dave Henrie   February 12th, 2010 6:40 pm ET

NEEDED: and essay contest.

SUBJECT: How my cell fone has made me a better person.

Ghostality   February 12th, 2010 6:46 pm ET

From a health perspective, the internet can be bad given people find themselves glued to their monitors for hours on end. But isn't this how corporations treat people with desk jobs? People are expected to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day.

But as any rational person knows, there are always two sides to the proverbial coin. The internet has saved me hundreds of dollars by acting as a conduit for specific information. Before the internet, common problems were suffered in a solitary way. Now, a viable solution is out there somewhere. You just have to know how to find it!

Mike Sterling   February 12th, 2010 6:47 pm ET

Wrong; its Kim Jung Il's haircut.

adamrussell   February 12th, 2010 6:48 pm ET


spicypink   February 12th, 2010 6:54 pm ET

I agree. People use the web for child porn or to sell their children into prostitution. People use it to harrass another until they commit suicide.

pudge   February 12th, 2010 7:00 pm ET

Odd that Harris can see the good and bad in the Internet, but not in religion.

GE in MD   February 12th, 2010 7:04 pm ET

The "Internet" Genie is out of the bottle along with Atomic/nuclear power. The folks who share Sam's viewoints need to figure out a way to confront and refute the idiocy which Sam identified correcly as dangerous. It's the same game with Atomic energy. We must find a way to arrest and convert the yahoos.

Nick   February 12th, 2010 7:11 pm ET

Interesting.....I read a similar article recently in the Contra Costa Times where Lanier made statements like these. It is a very interesting topic: does the internet make us less human? Is our dependency upon the internet detrimental to our future? Why is it that when we want to get information about something that we say to ourselves 'I should Google that'? – This was not a normal human response 20 years ago.

Zac   February 12th, 2010 7:11 pm ET

Sam Harris is brillant...a very progressive thinking. Watch his video at Idea City 05'. If I had a chance to have a discussion with one person it would be him.

You can tell he is also a very smart man in a career sense. Anyone who knows how big Sam Harris is on REASONS and evidence...knows he is not being honest in part of the above article.

Alex Becker   February 12th, 2010 7:13 pm ET

As the President of – a Digital Marketing Agency located in Los Angeles, CA I'm excited at the fact that people are becoming more reliant and dependent upon the internet. I completely agree with Sam's statement that the "Web isn't completely bad." but I do believe that the good definitely outweighs the bad.

Jeremy   February 12th, 2010 7:17 pm ET

911 truth conspiracy? thx for giving THE TRUTH more attention...but don't ya'll worry, the government will shut down the web soon enough and no one will have to worry about the TRUTH anymore. this guy is unreal.

Jeremy   February 12th, 2010 7:21 pm ET

*If my previous comment isn't on here, then it was censored! Ideas are destructive too cnn, just like this author's destructive ideas to censor people he disagrees with.DO NOT ALLOW NET CENSORSHIP OR NET TAKEOVER STOP THE BILL THAT IS IN CONGRESS NOW TO TAKE THE INTERNET AWAY FROM EVERYONE!!!

Neil   February 12th, 2010 7:21 pm ET

"Global jihad has been massively empowered by the Internet. Even things like the 911 truth conspiracy."

this is the most BS I've ever read in one sentence. I don't wear a tinfoil hat or do a lot of things that so called "crazies" do, but I know what's truth and what is a staged fiasco.

Do your homework.

Abd al-Latif   February 12th, 2010 7:24 pm ET

Sam, there is no "global jihad," just local American paranoia. The idea of global jihad is being used to justify killing people. How is Harris supposed to be an "eternal skeptic" if he buys into the U.S. government's flimsy 9/11 story with no hard evidence whatsoever? He is also wrong that no publisher has touched manuscripts written by those who question the official 9/11 story...several books on this have been published, for example, those by David Ray Griffin. As with the topic of religion, Harris is proffering opinions about issues about which he knows nothing.

Henry Miller   February 12th, 2010 7:31 pm ET

Technologies aren't destructive, people are. All any technology can do is amplify the effects, good or bad, of what people do.

stevie68a   February 12th, 2010 7:32 pm ET

He left out gossip..... posting devastating videos of people's private mo-
ments for the world to see.

LouAz   February 12th, 2010 7:37 pm ET

Yea ! Let's go back to the good old hunter/gatherer days when the earth was flat and a witch doctor told me everything I needed to know.
You betcha !

Bob   February 24th, 2010 1:09 pm ET

What he is saying is that the internet is a tool. It can be used for learning or as a backbone of a police state. It can be used to help connect people or to promote extremist views. It can be used to help people by giving them good medical information or to harm people through quackery. It can be used to open government up to the public or used to destroy people's privacy.

John F   February 24th, 2010 1:18 pm ET

First, Sam Harris does not believe in a "9/11 conspiracy". He is the absolute antithesis of a conspiracy buff. Read the article again. He is stating that the ridiculous idea of a conspiracy would not have grown the legs that it has without the aid of the internet.

Please, yes I am imploring here, please read one or both of Harris' books...The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Go to his website and watch one or more of his debates ( You will see that he is adamantly devoted to employing reason in the search for truth. He even leads The Reason Project.

Sam is not advocating that we get rid of the internet. He is simply stating that the easiness through which ignorance, hate, terrorism, conspiracies and lies are proliferated online makes the internet a powerful force in the world, albeit sometimes destructive.

Baker   February 25th, 2010 2:00 pm ET

For someone who has a negative opinion of the internet, he sure knows a lot about what type of things are out there. And how do you make a statement like "But there's obviously nuclear proliferation and bio-weapons and chemical weapons" as if it's an afterthought? Haha. How does the internet come close to comparing to destructive weapons like that? I think Sam Harris is a terminator sent back in time to try and destroy SkyNet. And before anyone cries, these are called jokes.

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