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Why do people still need to celebrate the web?

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Lee Siegel | 12:30 UK time, Monday, 3 August 2009

(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 India to find elevated positions that they would never have acquired at home. Let's have a little Orwell, shall we?


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting post. It could be argued that the mobile phone and SMS Txting have had a bigger day-to-day impact on most people's lives; the most digitally excluded in many countries do use mobile phones.
    Walk down any street and you see people talking, texting and even taking photos, all on their mobile.
    Even with convergence with the Web, many will continue to use mobiles just for those core functions.

    It's also a reasonable question, what don't we like about the Web? (The amount of my time it occupies for example.)

  • Comment number 2.

    @shefftim 'It could be argued that the mobile phone and SMS Txting have had a bigger day-to-day impact on most people's lives; the most digitally excluded in many countries do use mobile phones.
    Walk down any street and you see people talking, texting and even taking photos, all on their mobile.'

    Indeed, yet (unless I'm way off base), you don't see books rolling off the presses to extol the virtues of mobiles and their world-changing technology. Reviews, yes; books, no. Where are the paean's like 'Here Comes Everybody' or jeremiads like 'The Cult of The Amateur' for mobiles? We're not making a programme called the Mobile Revolution...

    But then, there have been plenty of stories of fears for mobiles causing cancer, boiling eggs with their microwaves, so maybe mobile technology gets its hours in the savage spotlight as well.

    Is it that the web is text and data-based and as such appeals more to people prone to writing text and collecting (and publishing) data? Or is it that it is indeed game-changing technology, a communications and information tool far more powerful than anything that has come before it? What Lee Siegel describes as 'an ultimately pedestrian technology' Bill Thompson describes as humanity acquiring a new sense, like sight. So, I think we see a divide in opinion here...

    That's the point of this programme: to try and ascertain the nature of the web, to try (with your help and input) to comprehend and describe clearly (and fairly) just how revolutionary it really is.

    What do you think? Is Lee Siegel right? IS the web a pudding we continue to over-egg with praise and concern?


    You also infer an interesting question from Lee Siegel's post: what do I dislike about the web?

    I, perhaps, on quick reflection, might consider how much I now take 'virtual contact' for granted as contact with friends, and how this may have rendered me less present in their lives, and they in mine. But, as with many of our ruminations here, I find that fault likely lies with me, rather than the technology itself.

    (Retreats to an evening of introspection...)

  • Comment number 3.

    Dear Lee,

    I share most of the concerns you state here in this post, and some of them will become (if they already didn't) _the_ problems of the first half of this century.

    But, reading things like "all this boosterism and herd-like affirmation is bizarre because the internet is a new mode of convenience, nothing more, nothing less" makes me think that you might be missing here major impacts that the Internet - and digital technologies at large - brought to our daily lives, our economies, our culture, the way we relate with others, etc, etc, etc.

    Long ago I listed some Economic Benefits of ICTs here: https://ictlogy.net/20080115-economic-benefits-of-icts/

    And it's just the economic side of the story.

    I agree there's too much buzz and hype around the Internet, and people that take potential and future possibilities of the Internet as unquestionable facts.

    But, honestly, the Internet has changed 250 years of industrial life as we knew it. And it's here to stay.

  • Comment number 4.

    It is misleading to criticise the public reception of the internet as though it were synonymous with TV and telephones. The internet was not created with a specific, public purpose. It grew out of military technology, and had to be adapted - through use - into a public tool.

    Twenty years on, the internet is currently experiencing a crescendo in its powers - that's what's being celebrated, not 'the internet'. Every revolution needs its cheer squad. If the internet is really to become the great democratising force of its supporters, it needs to attract the intention of even those who are skeptical of its value - so, uncompromising praise might be in order.

    Meanwhile, it would be a great shame if the internet's problems weren't identified, analysed and improved, which requires uncompromising criticism. It seems that Lee Siegel is on the case, here and elsewhere, but this article does nothing more than call for a Big Discussion - what are the agenda items for the discussion table, Lee?


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