Saturday, August 27, 2016

The World Wide Cage

I’d taken up blogging early in 2005, just as it seemed everyone was talking about ‘the blogosphere’. I’d discovered, after a little digging on the domain registrar GoDaddy, that ‘’ was still available (an uncharacteristic oversight by pornographers), so I called my blog Rough Type. The name seemed to fit the provisional, serve-it-raw quality of online writing at the time.

Blogging has since been subsumed into journalism – it’s lost its personality – but back then it did feel like something new in the world, a literary frontier. The collectivist claptrap about ‘conversational media’ and ‘hive minds’ that came to surround the blogosphere missed the point. Blogs were crankily personal productions. They were diaries written in public, running commentaries on whatever the writer happened to be reading or watching or thinking about at the moment. As Andrew Sullivan, one of the form’s pioneers, put it: ‘You just say what the hell you want.’ The style suited the jitteriness of the web, that needy, oceanic churning. A blog was critical impressionism, or impressionistic criticism, and it had the immediacy of an argument in a bar. You hit the Publish button, and your post was out there on the world wide web, for everyone to see.

Or to ignore. Rough Type’s early readership was trifling, which, in retrospect, was a blessing. I started blogging without knowing what the hell I wanted to say. I was a mumbler in a loud bazaar. Then, in the summer of 2005, Web 2.0 arrived. The commercial internet, comatose since the dot-com crash of 2000, was up on its feet, wide-eyed and hungry. Sites such as MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn and the recently launched Facebook were pulling money back into Silicon Valley. Nerds were getting rich again. But the fledgling social networks, together with the rapidly inflating blogosphere and the endlessly discussed Wikipedia, seemed to herald something bigger than another gold rush. They were, if you could trust the hype, the vanguard of a democratic revolution in media and communication – a revolution that would change society forever. A new age was dawning, with a sunrise worthy of the Hudson River School. (...)

The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’

The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables.

Such prophesies might be dismissed as the prattle of overindulged rich guys, but for one thing: they’ve shaped public opinion. By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests. If, after all, the technologists are creating a world of superabundance, a world without work or want, their interests must be indistinguishable from society’s. To stand in their way, or even to question their motives and tactics, would be self-defeating. It would serve only to delay the wonderful inevitable.

The Silicon Valley line has been given an academic imprimatur by theorists from universities and think tanks. Intellectuals spanning the political spectrum, from Randian right to Marxian left, have portrayed the computer network as a technology of emancipation. The virtual world, they argue, provides an escape from repressive social, corporate and governmental constraints; it frees people to exercise their volition and creativity unfettered, whether as entrepreneurs seeking riches in the marketplace or as volunteers engaged in ‘social production’ outside the marketplace. As the Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler wrote in his influential book The Wealth of Networks (2006):
This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.
Calling it a revolution, he said, is no exaggeration.

Benkler and his cohort had good intentions, but their assumptions were bad. They put too much stock in the early history of the web, when the system’s commercial and social structures were inchoate, its users a skewed sample of the population. They failed to appreciate how the network would funnel the energies of the people into a centrally administered, tightly monitored information system organised to enrich a small group of businesses and their owners.

The network would indeed generate a lot of wealth, but it would be wealth of the Adam Smith sort – and it would be concentrated in a few hands, not widely spread. The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterised by frenetic production and consumption – smartphones have made media machines of us all – but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency. That’s not to deny the benefits of having easy access to an efficient, universal system of information exchange. It is to deny the mythology that shrouds the system. And it is to deny the assumption that the system, in order to provide its benefits, had to take its present form.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.

I love a good gizmo. When, as a teenager, I sat down at a computer for the first time – a bulging, monochromatic terminal connected to a two-ton mainframe processor – I was wonderstruck. As soon as affordable PCs came along, I surrounded myself with beige boxes, floppy disks and what used to be called ‘peripherals’. A computer, I found, was a tool of many uses but also a puzzle of many mysteries. The more time you spent figuring out how it worked, learning its language and logic, probing its limits, the more possibilities it opened. Like the best of tools, it invited and rewarded curiosity. And it was fun, head crashes and fatal errors notwithstanding.

In the early 1990s, I launched a browser for the first time and watched the gates of the web open. I was enthralled – so much territory, so few rules. But it didn’t take long for the carpetbaggers to arrive. The territory began to be subdivided, strip-malled and, as the monetary value of its data banks grew, strip-mined. My excitement remained, but it was tempered by wariness. I sensed that foreign agents were slipping into my computer through its connection to the web. What had been a tool under my own control was morphing into a medium under the control of others. The computer screen was becoming, as all mass media tend to become, an environment, a surrounding, an enclosure, at worst a cage. It seemed clear that those who controlled the omnipresent screen would, if given their way, control culture as well.

by Nicholas Carr, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Albert Gea/Reuters