Why do people still need to celebrate the web?
(Lee Siegel is an author and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Beast. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Lee's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)
What I find most striking about the web today is the fact that people still seem to need to celebrate the web. Striking is the wrong word: I find it downright bizarre. I can't think of a single book that sang the praises of television at the time of that medium's advent, let alone 20 years after it had appeared. The same goes for the telephone and for film. Why is it that two decades after the internet established itself as a permanent fixture of our social, cultural and personal lives, do books still roll off the presses extolling the virtues of blogging, for example, or of online 'connected' culture? Even as newspapers have their profits leached away by online sites that plunder the former's content for free, the newspapers themselves publish encomia to the web. Even as authors lose royalty money that is rightfully theirs to online violations of copyright, they take to the pages of a magazine (see Nicholson Baker's mind-numbing hymn to the Kindle in the current issue of the New Yorker) to gurgle happily about intellectual piracy's new technology.
And why, in our modern media culture that thrives on contrarianism, is there not substantial scepticism about the web - not the slightest suggestion that life under the internet is not fundamentally better (and even in some cases more than marginally worse) than life BC (Before Connectivity). When such scepticism does cautiously raise its head, it is expressed so timorously that you could be forgiven for construing it as an endorsement. Recently, a review in the New York Times Book Review of a book lamenting the online violation of copyright, spent most of its space attacking the book's style, only to hurriedly conclude that the book's argument - the laws of copyright must be preserved against 'digital barbarism' (the book's title) - was essentially correct!
All this boosterism and herd-like affirmation is bizarre because the internet is a new mode of convenience, nothing more, nothing less. It has not made society more egalitarian, it has not made modern democratic politics more 'transparent', it has not made us happier. Rather, it has made our appetites more impatient to be satisfied, devised new, speedier ways of satisfying them, and created more sophisticated methods of monitoring and controlling our private lives.
Have the blogs broken the big stories that the supposedly corrupt big media have not? Well, let's see. During the past eight years, we had a criminal regime that tore the fabric of society to pieces. We had a financial crisis based on dishonesty and greed that is unlike anything ever seen in American history, and a 'solution' to the crisis that is, actually, a more advanced phase of the dishonesty and greed that caused it. For all the vaunted claims of internet-created 'transparency', we are more in the dark about the financial meltdown's causes than we have been about the origins of any socioeconomic event. And while the stock market soars, and the banks flourish, and the realtors and mortgage brokers find a new game to play, unemployment rises, foreclosures increase, and the media produced by the cable revolution, and fuelled by their legions of internet-connected 'citizen journalists', move bravely forward into ever more innovative ways to cover, and investigate, and make 'transparent' the circumstances around.... Michael Jackson's death.
It is at this point that I should, like a Soviet-era prisoner making a forced confession, enumerate the internet's virtues, castigate myself for being an intemperate and bitter dinosaur wedded to his telegraph and Victrola, and end by adding my voice to the collective Hosannas being showered on the web. But, to quote Melville's Bartleby, "I prefer not to."
Rather, I would like a serious discussion, first of all, of the way a novel idea becomes a mental tic--of the way a liberal idea of technology becomes a mindless, reflexive affirmation of technology's illiberal effects. For liberalism's nightmare used to consist of a many-tentacled regime using the appearance of transparency to construct a thicker opacity (remember that newspaper called 'Pravda'?); and creating the mirage of countless 'friends' (i.e. the Party) to normalize a culture of secret revelations and shame that actually sundered the bonds of friendship; and employing a culture of superficial information to disable true knowledge of the causes of events. I would like someone to present the Other Point of View without being called cowardly, future-phobic, or intemperate (he criticizes the reckless bloggers, but he's even nastier than they are!).
Why all the near-hysterical
hymns to an ultimately pedestrian technology that has been around for two
decades? The pie is getting smaller, that's all, and people are feeling left
out. Orwell was very good on all the slackers, layabouts and mediocrities that
rushed off to colonial