Coronavirus Reveals the Internet’s True Purpose

Rediscovering the Information Superhighway we know and love

It’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of the Coronavirus that’s claimed thousands of lives and infected almost 100,000 people around the world, but it has, maybe, transformed something that otherwise would be used for trolling and cat videos into a real-time, vital information machine.

Information Super Highway
 Lifewire / Lara Antal

And wasn’t that the internet’s original purpose, all along?

It started as “The Information Superhighway,” at least that’s what then Vice President Al Gore called the nascent internet back in the early 1990s. The implication was clear. The internet would let the world tap into a vast array of information, much as ARPANET had done in the decades before for universities.

Al Gore
Then Vice President Al Gore calls in 1994 for the building of the infrastructure necessary to support the Information Superhighway. C-Span

In the Beginning

The “network of networks,” as Gore termed it, would connect us in, up to then, almost impossible ways and open a spigot to formerly hidden or siloed information. In the first decade of connectivity, I think the internet did that. Granted, there’s always been a lot of online nonsense.

Back in 1995, American Essayist Dinty W. Moore tried in his book The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth About Internet Culture to characterize the internet for the uninitiated. “What everyone does agree on is that the number of users is rocketing skyward. More and more newcomers are using the internet to find an enormous amount of information, some of that information crucial, technical or fascinating, much of it just silly.”

Over the past 15 years, with the emergence of social media, the internet has leaned more heavily into the “silly,” useless, angry, and nonsensical.

Essentially, the Information Superhighway has transformed into the Misinformation Highway.

Doctor testing swabs
I found this image of a scientist testing swabs for the Coronavirus on the Internet. Thanks Information Superhighway!. Getty Images

When You’re Afraid

But the threat of death has refocused online information and engagement in ways I never thought possible. As I see it, there’s a more concerted effort to provide useful digital information.

We’re seeing it across:

Because Coronavirus is not contained to a single country or continent, it’s impossible to ignore as someone else’s problem. The need for up-to-date information about the virus’s spread is as vital in Italy as it is in South Korea, China, Seattle, your city, and your block.

As you might expect, online news has refocused into almost wall-to-wall COVID-19 updates. It’s working not only to share information about the spread but deliver updates from every possible official source and working harder than I’ve ever seen to provide accurate information. In the U.S., Coronavirus shares equal billing with the also fluid Presidential Election primary season.

If Coronavirus succeeds in killing one more thing, please let it be fake news. Facebook and YouTube have been working overtime to stamp out lies, misinformation, fake news, and dangerously fake cures on their platforms. I think they’re more successful than normal.

Essentially, the Information Superhighway has transformed into the Misinformation Highway.

Facebook is full of people sharing real, on-the-ground information about sanitizing supplies (or a lack thereof) and others are doing their best to spread Coronavirus facts at a local level (and some questionable virus jokes).

Maybe it’s just my feed, but I do think Twitter is a little bit less troll-y. Humans realize that sharing valuable updates regarding the Coronavirus spread can save lives.

Perhaps one reason that the internet is so hyper-focused on Coronavirus is that it’s having a substantial impact on the companies that helped build the Information Superhighway. August tech companies like Adobe, Amazon, Apple, FacebookGoogle, every mobile company (Mobile World Congress), gaming companies (GDC), and more have had to contend with either event cancellations or difficult decisions to remove themselves from events (SXSW). They’re also dealing with Coronavirus’s potential economic impact on their businesses. They’ve had to shut down factories, ask employees to work from home, and, very likely, recalibrate product and technology rollouts.

The Bad and the Good

Outbreak clip
Yes, a lot of people are watching Outbreak right now (not a documentary), but could they do that without the internet?.  Fandango MovieClips

The flip side is those using this revitalized Information Superhighway to their own advantage. Amazon, for instance, is being asked by lawmakers to contend with Coronavirus prevention supplies price gouging.

In addition, there’s still a lot of garbage and twisting of facts out there. I know I could do with a few less “Gotcha! I caught you touching your face!” videos—it’s a habit that is hard to break for everyone, so give people a break.

Still, in this unprecedented situation, I think the whacks are winning out over the moles.

Wherever I turn online there’s information about surviving the outbreak. We’re learning a lot about:

On that last point, there is some irony in the fact that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who helped define a broken internet, has, with his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, helped sequence the genome behind the virus. If this leads to a vaccine, we could say that the Internet helped defeat Coronavirus. After all, Zuckerberg wouldn’t have had the billions to invest in his initiative without it.

So What

The internet is not a cure. It is what it always was, a tool and platform for connecting people with ideas, entertainment and, most of all, information. I don’t think we’re through the worst of the Coronavirus outbreak (at least not in the U.S.) or dealing with its long-term ramifications, but the internet’s response to the crisis is an unexpected balm in a time of online anger, divisiveness, and fake news. It’s also proof that maybe, just maybe, we can get this Information Superhighway thing right.

Like this column? Get more like it delivered directly to your inbox.
Sign-up for Untangled
, a more sensible approach to technology.