IT'S billed as a return to "real" communication' – a small rebellion against the indomitable might of Facebook, Twitter and email; a throwback to the sepia-hued days when we sent each other long-distance telegrams.

A new service, Red Bike Telegrams, offers a "luxury telegram printed on high-quality A5 card enhanced by embossed, gold foil-finished lettering". It sounds like a nice, timely, retro idea. But the irony is that you need internet access in the first place to send one. "Simply complete the three-step online order form ...", says the publicity material.

We live in a wired world, and the benefits are as vast as they are obvious, as is highlighted in a new book, How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? In it 154 intellectuals discuss the net's impact on our minds and future. Some take a positive view; others, however, like journalist and author John Markoff, are more pessimistic. "Welcome to a bleak Blade Runner-esque world," he writes, "dominated by Russian, Ukrainian, Nigerian, and American cybermobsters, in which our every motion and movement is surveilled by a chorus of Big and Little Brothers. Not only have I been transformed into an Internet pessimist, but recently the net has begun to feel downright spooky."

Markoff is broadly in step with a loose movement around the world which is being termed The New Luddites, after the disgruntled workers who, angry at the detrimental impact on their lives of new technology, smashed factory machines in the 19th century. If you're a New Luddite it doesn't mean you want to destroy the internet – more that you are slightly uneasy about the effect it is having on lifestyle, culture and the economy.

We know that the retrieval and dissemination of information has been revolutionised. The globe has truly been shrunk to the point where, via Google's Street View, we take a virtual stroll up New York's Fifth Avenue and gaze at the window displays at Saks. But is that good? It's not real, so has it any purpose?

Communication with people in remote parts of the world has never been easier. Twitter and Facebook allow us to share and access opinions at ease. Often vacuous and rude, such as during the Arab Spring, it's a force of popular power. E-commerce has become massive – UK online retail sales jumped by 14% last year to more than £50 billion but, of course, that growth will continue to hit high streets.

We download music, legally and illegally, in almost uncountable numbers. The more piracy, however, the less likely artists are to make songs. Entertainment sites such as the BBC iPlayer are hugely popular: in December 2011 it recorded its highest-ever number of programme requests, with 187 million registered across smartphones, internet-connected TVs and tablets. In the entire year, 1.94 billion TV and radio requests were made across all platforms.

The advances in technology and communications would simply not have been recognised by anyone who bought one of the first Commodore 64 computers launched 30 years ago this year. "38911 Basic Bytes Free," read the message on the Commodore's screen.

The internet's downside needs little rehearsing, either: loss of privacy, remarkably free and easy access to extreme and often violent hard-core pornography, addiction to online gambling or social networking sites, to name just a few. The net's darker side was neatly summed up 10 years ago by a character in Yale law professor Stephen L Carter's novel, The Emperor Of Ocean Park: the web, he said, "is one-third retail, one-third porn, and one-third lies, all of our baser nature in one quick stop".

To the concern of privacy campaigners, the FBI is now looking to develop an early-warning system based on material "scraped from social networks". It says the system should provide information about possible domestic and global threats superimposed onto maps "using mash-up technology".

The impact of Amazon and similar sites can be felt in cities and towns across the UK. Journalist and author John Naughton wrote earlier this month: "The combination of recession and intensified competition from online is proving too much for some retailers, which is why high streets are beginning to have a gap-toothed look."

Like newspapers, the music and film industries also bear the painful teeth-marks of the internet. Last March, Liz Bales, director-general of the Industry Trust for Intellectual Property Awareness, warned illegal downloading was threatening the film industry's ability to operate in Britain. "It is a global issue. In some countries it has reached the point where it is not possible to offer competitive legal services. In Spain, for example, the market has been decimated by digital infringement."

The wired world is a permanent force in our lives, but do we need to exercise more caution over it? Do we need to listen to the nuanced voices – call them New Luddites, perhaps – who sense adverse consequences from the very thing we are in thrall to?

AuthoR Nicholas Carr acknowledges the internet's usefulness as a source of information and consumer tool, but he once posed the question, in an article for The Atlantic magazine: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and in his 2010 book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, he wrote of his belief that search engines were fragmenting our knowledge and that computers were destroying our powers of concentration.

Max Tegmark, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes "ubiquity of information" has a positive impact on science, education and economic development. The downside is that "as the master of distraction, it seems to be further reducing our collective attention span from the depths to which television had brought it".

Several academic studies have found that because of the stunning power of Google and other search engines, we adapt our ability to remember. It seems to be simply enough that we know where information might be found. Psychologist Betsy Sparrow, one of the principal researchers in a study at Columbia University, said last summer that, when confronted with difficult questions, people were "primed to think about computers", and consequently had lower rates of recall of the information itself, and improved recall of where and how to access it. Sparrow called the internet "an external memory source that we can access at any time".

Such ubiquity and ease-of-use struck a chord on January 18 when Wikipedia blacked out its English-language pages in protest against proposed US anti-piracy laws. The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, blogged a "modest proposal for Wikipedia – can it please stay offline for ever? It has already achieved something remarkable, replacing genuine intellectual curiosity and discovery with a world of lazy, instant factoids. Can it take a rest and let civilisation recover?"

"Wikipedia tempts us to think we know something when we have learned nothing," he insisted. "Learning takes time, effort and thought. Wikipedia tells us it is instant, easy, mentally unchallenging. It is a threat to culture – and I wish it would go away for good."

But Jennifer Lipman, of the Jewish Chronicle, countered: "The future of research is online; it's up to a responsible web community to ensure that what's found out is really the case and to challenge inaccuracies, for example by using Wikipedia's 'improve this article' function."

Author Zadie Smith has spoken of social networking creating a generation of People 2.0 and wonders whether the entire net will become like Facebook – "falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous".

Scholar Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, takes issue with the "cyber-utopian view" of the internet and communications technology as essentially pro-democratic, arguing that the net can be just as effective at sustaining authoritarian regimes. Malcolm Gladwell has queried the status of Facebook and Twitter as genuine agents of change.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told internet industry figures last year they had "changed the world - it has been a total global revolution. What has been unique in this revolution is that it belongs to nobody; it has no flag, no slogan, it is a common good". But he cautioned: "We have to make sure that the universe that you are responsible for is not a parallel universe outside laws and morals."

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South – the party's recently departed social media tsar who wrong-footed himself with a spoof Hitler video on YouTube sending up Alex Salmond – takes a robust view of the internet's benefits and whether we could live without it.

"I think our economy, our social lives and almost everything about our society have been dramatically transformed by the internet. People underestimate just how much an impact the internet has had, and how much we actually rely on it. So the answer is, yes, we could survive without it, but if we suddenly didn't have the internet I think we would have to reinvent society."

ON the issue of data overload, he said: "I respond to this in the way I responded to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Wall and communism fell there were a number of siren voices saying the world is now an even more dangerous place than it ever was before. Utter nonsense. There are always people who are willing to see the downside in everything."

However, many historians would say the world after communism – a world defined by 9/11 – has become infinitely more dangerous.

Harris goes on: "In every innovation there are people saying 'this is going to make things worse.' Information overload doesn't actually happen. Most people have a number of websites they can rely on, and they use them as often or as little as they want to. That is an amazing thing. You can have any amount of information at your fingertips. You're not overloaded, because if you don't want too much information, you don't click on that particular link. There are a few downsides, but overwhelmingly the internet is of massive benefit to society."

Dr Mike Just, an assistant professor at Glasgow Caledonian University's School of Engineering and Built Environment, believes versions of the argument over the internet's downside surface every decade "for every new technology or every new change or trend."

Just, whose research interests include applied cryptography and human-computer interaction, said: "We always need people who can offer a different point of view, because a lot of the people who are moving forward on the internet have good intentions, but many of them will move things too fast for the wrong reasons, or without realising what it will look like in the future.

"Luddites are one class of people it's always good to have. We always need people who remember yesterday. But they can only do so much. You don't want to stifle innovation."

He added: "I think that self-regulation seems to be doing reasonably well on the internet. You look at the way that Wikipedia and other organisations used [the blackout] to make a statement about certain items of legislation. You see the situation in the Middle East, where the internet has been used for people to voice their concerns.

"You need to have researchers who are able to suggest which way things are going on the internet, but you also need the technology to put in place to protect our privacy. If we are going to expose more personal information we need to be able to understand where it might take us."

Could we survive without the internet? "Going back in time, we became dependent upon farming machinery over the years as we moved forward. It's same with anything else. Could we survive without cars? Human resilience is fascinating; if we are without something we can, of course, learn to live with that.

"The question in relation to the internet is not what we might do if we lost it, but do we really have any desire to live without it? The further we go ahead, the more dependent we are on these things. The internet does a lot of good things for us. We just need to be careful how we move forward."

Dr Murdo Macdonald is policy officer with the Church of Scotland's society, religion and technology project, and was part of the team involved in a detailed report last year, The Internet: In Whose Image? which was presented to the General Assembly.

He says: "The internet's benefits, and commercial implications, are of course enormous but there are some fundamental implications about the way we interact electronically with each other. There's the issue of identity on the web, how easy it is to scam people through it.

"Certain things are available online that otherwise might have been inaccessible, quite apart from issues of copyright. One question raised by the report is, who can speak with authority? My background is in science and I'm used to dealing with peer-reviewed papers, but in Wikipedia, for example, people can change entries to suit themselves and other people will take that as being true."

HE goes on: "A lot of what is on the web is undoubtedly true and educational, but a lot of it is trite or unsubstantiated or potentially dangerous. Anyone can post anything freely on the internet, whereas in the past it cost money, and took time, to publish things.

"In terms of whether we should be sceptical or cynical about the internet, I think 'ambivalence' is probably a more appropriate term."

Eleven years ago Frances Cairncross, then of The Economist, wrote The Death Of Distance 2.0, about how the communications revolution can shrink the globe and change people's lives.

In a far-sighted passage, Cairncross said the revolution was "profoundly democratic and liberating, levelling the imbalance between large and small, rich and poor. The death of distance, overall, should be welcomed and endured". Presciently, she noted: "Democracy will continue to spread; people who live under dictatorial regimes will be more aware of their governments' failures."

John Naughton brings matters up to date in his new book, From Gutenberg To Zuckerberg: What You Really Need To Know About The Internet. In a telling epilogue, he says those hoping the turbulence wrought by the internet will subside are "doomed to disappointment".

"The complexity of our emerging media ecosystem, together with the 'permissionless innovation' that is facilitated by the internet, make a return to stability an unlikely prospect," he writes. "Instead, our future will be one that is characterized by ongoing disruptive innovation."

Like electricity, he adds, the networked information environment is here to stay. "It offers us great potential benefits but the powerful vested interests that are threatened by it want to capture and control it for their own ends. And our dependence on it raises serious and worrying questions not just about security and privacy but also about cultural freedom, creativity and diversity."

The turbulence, then, may refuse to settle – but so, too, will the New Luddites, their voices ringing ever more insistently in our ears.