The Victorian Internet and Centralized Solutions

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the internet affects our ability to think, pulling from Nicholas Carr's post on internet and mindlessness. I disagreed with Carr's skepticism, and in the comments, Samael noted that Carr was actually using a common form of argument.
This seems to be a pretty common form of argument, though.

If the advent of a technology tends to create a certain problem, what is to blame for that problem?

It's not much different from the "guns/video games/music/movies are to blame for violence" or "video games/television are to blame for short attention spans" or "junk food is responsible for obesity" arguments.
Carr's argument is in the same form - the sea of information made possible by the internet is to blame for a deterioration in our ability to think. I rejected that because of choice - technology does not force us to think poorly; we choose how we interact with technology (especially on-demand technology like the internet). It's possible to go overboard, but there's nothing forcing that to happen. It's our choice. In any case, this isn't the first time a technology that lead to a massive increase in communication caused these problems. In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage explores the parallels between the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today. Jon Udell summarizes the similarities:
A 19th-century citizen transported to today would be amazed by air travel, Standage suggests, but not by the Internet. Been there, done that.

Multiprotocol routers? Check. Back then, they translated between Morse code and scraps of paper in canisters shot through pneumatic tubes.

Fraud? Check. Stock market feeds were being spoofed in the 1830s, back when the telegraph network ran on visual semaphores rather than electrical pulses.

Romance? Check. The first online marriage was really a telegraph marriage, performed not long after the dawn of electric telegraphy.

Continuous partial attention? Check. In 1848 the New York businessman W.E. Dodge was already feeling the effects of always-on connectivity: "The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London."
All too often, when I listen to someone describe a problem, I feel a sensationalistic vibe. It's usually not that I totally disagree that something is a problem, but the more I read of history and the more I analyze certain issues, I find that much of what people are complaining about today isn't all that new. Yes, the internet has given rise to certain problems, but they're not really new problems. They're the same problems ported to a new medium. As shown in the quote above, many of the internet's problems also affected telegraphy nearly two centuries ago (I'd wager that the advance of the printing press lead to similar issues in its time as well). That doesn't make them less of a problem (indeed, it actually means that the problem is not easily solved!), but it does mean we should perhaps step back and maybe turn down the rhetoric a bit. These are extremely large problems and they're not easily solved.

It almost feels like we expect there to be a simple solution for everything. I've observed before that there is a lot of talk about problems that are incredibly complex as if they really aren't that complex. Everyone is trying to "solve" these problems, but as I've noted many times, we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set of problems is more favorable than the old). What's more, we expect these "solutions" to come at a high level. In politics, this translates to a Federal solution rather than relying upon state and local solutions. A Federal law has the conceit of being universal and fair, but I don't think that's really true. When it comes to large problems, perhaps the answer isn't large solutions, but small ones. Indeed, that's one of the great things about the structure of our government - we have state and local governments which (in theory) are more responsive and flexible than the Federal government. I think what you find with a centralized solution is something that attempts to be everything to everyone, and as a result, it doesn't help anyone.

For example, Bruce Schneier recently wrote about identity theft laws.
California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.

Except that it won't do the same thing: The federal bill has become so watered down that it won't be very effective. I would still be in favor of it -- a poor federal law is better than none -- if it didn't also pre-empt more-effective state laws, which makes it a net loss.
It's a net loss because the state laws are stricter. This also brings up another point about centralized systems - they're much more vulnerable to attack than a decentralized or distributed system. It's much easier to lobby against (or water down) a single Federal law than it is to do the same thing to 50 state laws. State and local governments aren't perfect either, but their very structure makes them a little more resilient. Unfortunately, we seem to keep focusing on big problems and proposing big centralized solutions, bypassing rather than taking advantage of the system our founding fathers wisely put into place.

Am I doing what I decry here? Am I being alarmist? Probably. The trend for increasing federalization is certainly not new. However, in an increasingly globalized world, I'm thinking that resilience will come not from large centralized systems, but at the grassroots level. During the recent French riots, John Robb observed:
Resilience isn't limited to security. It is also tied to economic prosperity. There aren't any answers to this on the national level. The answer is at the grassroots level. It is only at that level that you get the flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness to compete effectively. The first western country that creates a platform for economic interop and at the same time decentralizes power over everything else is going to be a big winner.
None of this is to say that grassroots efforts are perfect. There are a different set of issues there. But as I've observed many times in the past, the fact that there are issues shouldn't stop us. There are problems with everything. What's important is that the new issues we face be more favorable than the old...