Sunday, December 20, 2009

Who Does the Internet Belong To?

(There's nothing new under the sun ...)

Roy Edroso of alicublog has been writing for the Village Voice for about a year now, I think. He's a good writer, and I mostly respect him even when I disagree with him, as I often do. He's a very valuable chronicler of the right wing of the blogosphere -- I'm very glad he reads Ann Althouse, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, and the like so I don't have to. His latest piece, "Social Media Ruined the Internet", is a bit of a departure from his Voice writings and even from his cultural posts at alicublog. He sums it up with some irony:
In brief, the tech revolution has brought us some clear benefits (e.g., LOLcats, free porn), but when it comes to thinking and communicating, it's been a net loss. (Hoists snifter) Perhaps you disagree?
Well, yes and no. In the column itself he writes that the Internet
has evolved to the point where it can't do much more for you. Which is to say, it isn't going to get any better: it will add features, but will basically remain the same tool: a super TV that you can talk back to.

Ah, talking back -- now, there was an innovation: Social Media, the last significant piece in the internet evolution, and beginning of the end of the dream.

I should mention that I -- like a lot of people, I think -- use "the Internet" rather loosely, to refer not only to the World Wide Web, which is the text/image/audio/video interface of today, but to early incarnations that were generally text-only, like Usenet, Fidonet, Compuserve, and America Online, but which enabled people to connect from their homes, over telephone lines at first, and interact with people elsewhere: potentially with everyone who had access to those networks. I'm talking here about the mid-1980s, when I bought my first Commodore 64 and, soon after, a 300-baud modem.

Far fewer people in those days had computers, and the computers they had were slower and smaller in terms of memory and storage, but it was tremendously exciting to exchange messages, even chat in real time, with people on the American coasts, and occasionally on the other side of the world. I had a Compuserve account for a while, but dropped it when I got my first $90 bill for a month's activity. I never got onto America Online, but I later met people who did, and learned from gay men that AOL and its competitors were very handy cruising and socializing sites. So I'm confused by Roy Edroso's claim that social networking is a recent, even the latest Internet development. It's been there for over two decades.

Edroso is also critical of blogs, somewhat ironic for a blogger, as he admits. Which doesn't mean he's wrong.

It turned out that the internet wasn't an advanced, processing brain, after all, nor an agent of meaniLinkngful change. In the political realm, it has revealed only had one enduring value: as a propaganda tool.
This really baffles me. No one who knew anything about computers or their potential could have believed that the Internet was "an advanced, processing brain", could they? Actually, I guess they did; and for most citizens, including early personal-computer users, their notion of the potential of computers came mainly from the Terminator movies. The fantasy that Artificial Intelligence is just around the corner, followed closely by the Obsolescence of Homo Sapiens, is still with us, like predictions of the Rapture. But it's every bit as bogus: the Internet, let alone any individual computer, is not an agent of anything.

A few people have become better informed about national issues because of it, but far more have been made to know to a certainly that the Congressional health care plan includes "death panels," that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya who will turn America socialist, and that his wife is Marie Antoinette. We admit our own part in this, for we would rather focus on the latest batshit crazy thing Michele Bachmann said than on the details of the East Anglia email scandal (which has proved for many that "global warming is a fraud").

But is this really new, or specific to the Internet? True, the Net enables people to disseminate their writings more widely and quickly and cheaply than print or broadcasting did, but the US has a long colorful history of batshit crazy commentators talking over the radio, spitting out cheaply printed or mimeographed broadsides (that very word embodies a long history of printed political ranting) whose content spread widely. As one commenter at the Voice pointed out, "the Federalists didn't have e-mail in 1800, but their attacks on Jefferson were every bit as scurrilous and widespread as the right's smears."

Churches were also good vehicles for influencing communities. In the 1970s and 1980s I worked with Pentecostals who passed around photocopied tracts about how the communist World Council of Churches was scheming to impose a One World Government that would take all references to the saving Blood of Jesus Christ from all Bibles, and make everyone wear the Mark of the Beast or they wouldn't be allowed to buy or sell. Some of this was recycled from Hal Lindsey's infamous The Late Great Planet Earth, but Lindsey was recycling material he'd picked up from other writers and preachers. Word of mouth has killed more than a few people in this country and elsewhere, stirring up lynch mobs without a microchip or a fiber optic involved. "Thanks to blogs," Edroso wrote, "our political discourse now reads like Red Channels mixed with an Andrew Breitbart monologue." I seem to remember it was always like that. Maybe the Net has made things bigger, faster, and worser, but I still think the difference is one of degree, not of kind.

I've long noticed a strain of snobbism in the ambivalence many educated people (including me) feel about the spread of computers to Joe Sixpack, the Unwashed Masses, and the Housewife.
The non-news Top Twitter Trending Topics of the year include Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, and American Idol. Perhaps you feel as if you became better informed on these subjects because of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Digg. More likely, you were just more inundated with them; you got more video and audio clips, saw more trailers and red-carpet photos, and read more gossip and reiterations of the same bare facts about them. What did social media teach you about Michael Jackson, besides how big a deal it was that he was dead?

And as for Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc, we can hardly tell you anything you haven't discovered yourself. You have XXX friends; you have XX invitations; so-and-so likes this; view all X comments. These are wonderful tools for shut-ins, of which they have made us all.

Well, yeah, but again the difference is at most one of degree. Supermarket tabloids, the Sports section, Hollywood publicity magazines and entertainment infomercials have long been with us, and many Americans have always paid more attention to the doings of the stars than to politics. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 disillusioned many ("Say it ain't so, Joe!"), but was it more important than the Red Scare and the plight of World War I veterans? I know I have just uttered blasphemy and sacrilege, but I'm an all-purpose infidel and I'm used to it. As for Facebook et al., as I mentioned earlier they are new mainly by comparison to the telephone and the telegraph.

Edroso sums up:
The real force behind blogs, Twitter, and all other social media is its users, which is to say, practically everyone of the internet. And this is the saddest part of the demise of the internet as anything other than a microwave for the mind: we are the ones who killed it. And no matter how feverishly we click and scroll and friend and block, nothing we do can bring it back to life.
I think that reports of the Internet's death are somewhat exaggerated. As I commented,
As I recall the early cheerleading for the Internet, it was like most cheerleading for new or "new" technology: partly corporate marketing blather (part of the point was to convince people that every American must not only have their own computer, but a superfast, superadvanced computer on which to file recipes and write e-mail) and partly technogeek masturbation (technology will save the world! or at least I need to have a personal superconducting supercomputer to write code and play Myst on, which will change the world and give every American a faster, more powerful computer to file recipes and write e-mail on, and that will save the world). And there's always been an uneasy feeling among the geek elites that they didn't want to share this wonderful new technology with housewives and couch potatoes who would just waste it on e-mail, filing recipes and analyzing sports stats instead of inventing new computer languages and more advanced role playing games, as God intended. We should also remember America Online, Compuserve, and the like, which also functioned as social sites and provided conduits for netlore that previously had been lower-tech Xeroxlore and low-tech handcopied folklore.

And I disagree with [another commenter]. The dumbification of, say, movie criticism predates the Internet. It is connected to the corporatization of journalism, but then movie reviewing originated as part of Hollywood marketing, and remains so to this day. See Jonathan Rosenbaum's
Movie Wars (yeah, it's like totally a print publication, so no link) on the way that, as a serious film critic/reviewer moves up the prestige chain in print media, the space he or she is allotted shrinks. This has to do more with conscious strategies of keeping it simple, by the upper echelons who think of their markets as stupid and uninterested in thinking, whether their markets fit the image, than with any inherent limitation of print. And while yeah, Sturgeon's Law applies to Internet content as much as anywhere else, the Internet also makes it possible for writers to stretch out with less concern about space limitations or what the Advertisers (like the movie companies) will think. The problem is just finding the good stuff, but then it's always been true. "Of the writing of books there is no end." "Another d----d fat square book! Scribble scribble scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"
Just about everyone, it seems, complains about how much junk there is on the Internet. The fault is always the fault of someone else -- Them, the Dumb Ones, and so on. I confess I often feel that way when I'm on Myspace with its "pimped" profiles, so overloaded with graphics and music that they are literally unreadable, and utterly tacky and devoid of all taste. Still, all that gives their users and proprietors as much pleasure as customizing their personal copies of Emacs gives many computer programmers. (Or used to give -- I'm out of touch.) And if it weren't for the Great Unwashed out there with their Nascar obsessions, what would the elite wannabe's have to play Ain't It Awful over? It doesn't hurt me, or stop me from writing and posting what I want to write and post. Nor does it stop anyone else. If it were decided to bar Teh Stupid from the Net, who would be the gatekeepers? Who would watch the watchers?