In celebration of Earth Day, I’d like to ask a simple question: as a whole, does the internet help or hurt the earth? For most, the answer would appear fairly straight forward.   However, I’d like to examine two contrasting scenarios where the internet could be either saving or destroying our planet.

1.  The Internet is Mobilizing Us to Save the Earth: This is probably the most general consensus.  The internet provides a massive network of real-time communication and is for the most part ‘open.’  This  network allows humans to communicate with each other about what the planet’s current problems are (global warming, water scarcity, endangered species, etc.) and theoretically join forces to solve them.  We’ve already seen the power that the internet has as far as putting a magnifying glass on an international crisis, allowing people to join forces through giving, helping and communicating.

The internet also provides scientific researchers a medium to efficiently communicate and collaborate with one another and learn more about our planet.  The internet is propelling the technological collaboration to stifle climate change,  preserve biodiversity  and save natural ecosystems.

In addition, the internet provides much of the world’s population with a wealth of easily accessible information about the world around us, from access to massive databases of species to the irrefutable proof that climate change is indeed real.

2.  The Internet is Mobilizing Us to Destroy the Earth: An alternate and somewhat less accepted view is that the internet is allowing humans to mobilize to slowly but surely destroy the planet.

Renowned Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson caused waves in the 70s within the scientific community by asserting that much of modern  human social behavior has a genetic basis, which is now a widely accepted theory.  He has gone on to propose that in many ways, human natural selection can act on a group or society level, much as in an ant colony.

Taking this theory one step further, although each individual human might think they are in control of their ‘destiny’, the species as a whole has been pre-programmed: learn about the environment around us and exploit the resources.  For post-agricultural and industrial societies this translates to becoming a sort of cancer on the earth, sucking up more resources than are available, darkening the skies with pollution and blighting the land with concrete and steel.

The internet is the ultimate technology that allows the human species to coordinate universal efforts and further a ‘hive mind’ or ‘collective consciousness.’  As humans become more intensely integrated with the internet – memes, data, virtual worlds and social networks – the collective consciousness will have less interest in the natural world around us.   Media Theorist Katherine Hayles  writes about the ‘post-human’ era:  “the post human is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will.”

Although every individual act we take will have a minor effect on the system as a whole (or the earth), the species collective consciousness, propelled by real-time Internet communication, will in the end go the direction it ‘wants’ to.   Based on the direction we’ve moved so far as a species, this does not bode well for the Earth.