But, I'm also not a Kurzweilian, either, expecting technology to get us all living to 300 with Viagra-free perfect sexual activity. (And, that’s happening in just 30 years, says Kurzweil, with Time magazine dumb enough to give him its cover on that subject.)
So, while I appreciate making online friends, applying for jobs online, learning new things online, shopping online and more ...
I won't ignore that there IS a dark side to the Internet, even if not all of it is Orwellian. (Note: This may become a series — part 2 is here.)
Or, there's flip sides to coins, at least. And, the dark sides may be less harmful and more pedestrian than anything else. And, are in part "dark sides" only in comparison to a relentless, nearly fact-free boosterism of Internet utopians like Clay Shirky.
Take online shopping.
The flip side? Online ads becoming ever more pervasive. Online violations of private information growing and becoming more aggressive. And, in light of that, let me repeat my assertion that "Brave New World" is equally seminal as "1984,"if not more so.
And, I’m not alone in that.
“Is the Internet Changing the Way We Think?”, edited by John Brockman, the founder of the online science-and-technology site Edge.org, discusses a lot of these issues, as this Wall Street Journal review notes.
Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher, argues that the Internet isn't changing the way we think; it is exacerbating the deceptively simple challenge of "attention management." "Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life," he argues. The way we use the Internet today represents "not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but also a mild form of depersonalization. . . . I call it public dreaming."Beyond worrying about the Internet, at least one person in the book tells us not to overrate it:
These are not the laments of technophobes. MIT professor Rodney Brooks, an expert on robotics, worries that the Internet "is stealing our attention. It competes for it with everything else we do." Neuroscientist Brian Knutson imagines a near future in which "the Internet may impose a 'survival of the focused,' in which individuals gifted with some natural ability to stay on target, or who are hopped up on enough stimulants, forge ahead while the rest of us flail helpless in a Web-based attentional vortex." …
The substitution of the virtual for the real is another common theme. Paleontologist Scott Sampson worries about "the loss of intimate experience with the natural world." And computer scientist Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, says that the Internet has "become gripped by reality-denying ideology." Several of the book's contributors, particularly artists and architects, make solid arguments for the importance of unmediated experiences to the creative process. …
The neuroscientist Joshua Greene suggests, in a blunt but apt metaphor, that the Internet, for all its revolutionary pretense, is "nothing more, and nothing less, than a very useful, and very dumb, butler.Clay Shirky, below, can't fit "butler" or "robot" in his cyber-utopianism. I'll get to that later.
Meanwhile, there's the dark side of Twitter.
Lee Siegel immediately notes one issue:
Just a few years ago, all anyone could talk about was how to make the Internet more free. Now all anyone can talk about is how to control it.it's a good start to his review of Evgeny Morozov's “The Net Delusion.”
He shows how American naivete and chauvinism have mixed to worship at the altar of Twitter:
He quotes the political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who proclaimed after protesters took to the streets in Tehran that “the revolution will be Twittered.” The revolution never happened, and the futilely tweeting protesters were broken with an iron hand. But Sullivan was hardly the only one to ignore the Iranian context. Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”
Frank Rich knows the truth.
The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses. That is indeed impressive if no one points out that, even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.Rich also implies that American teevee, as opposed to the effectively banned-from-America Al Jazeera, relies on foreign Tweeters out of collective corporate laziness:
That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience.Meanwhile, the Internet in America is not that ethical:
As Morozov points out, don’t expect corporations like Google to liberate anyone anytime soon. Google did business in China for four years before economic conditions and censorship demands — not human rights concerns — forced it out. And it is telling that both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, a pact that Morozov describes as “an industrywide pledge . . . to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right to freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”So, let’s not expect the Internet to radically change the ethos of American business.
To some degree, I suspect early expectations of the Internet were in part a mix of American naivete, salvific technologism and American exceptionalism that all overlapped, and are now facing reality.
Yet more on the dark side of the Net from the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, reviewing Clay Shirky's new book, as well as Morozov's.
This is a great overview of a variety of books, some claiming this is the best of times for human psychology and more, some saying the brain in some ways just can't keep pace, and some saying its six of one, a half dozen of the other.
(A)mong the new books about the Internet (there are three types): call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers.In the first category? A book by new media fluffer Clay Shirky and an essay Pop Ev Psycher (yes, you are) John Tooby, both make ignorant claims about the early egalitarianism and humanism of the printing press, among other things.
Shirky’s and Tooby’s version of Never-Betterism has its excitements, but the history it uses seems to have been taken from the back of a cereal box. The idea, for instance, that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth. If the printing press did propel the Reformation, one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther’s newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what followed the Reformation wasn’t the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge. What followed the Reformation was, actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means—i.e., printed books—to spread ideas about what jerks the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare.I'll pass on both. As for Shirky, if he can't get the founding instrument of media, and its early influence on society, right, how can we trust his pronunciamentos on media today? Of course, we can't.
Meanwhile, Shirky's naive wiki-touting gets demolished:
In a practical, immediate way, one sees the limits of the so-called “extended mind” clearly in the mob-made Wikipedia, the perfect product of that new vast, supersized cognition: when there’s easy agreement, it’s fine, and when there’s widespread disagreement on values or facts, as with, say, the origins of capitalism, it’s fine, too; you get both sides. The trouble comes when one side is right and the other side is wrong and doesn’t know it. The Shakespeare authorship page and the Shroud of Turin page are scenes of constant conflict and are packed with unreliable information. Creationists crowd cyberspace every bit as effectively as evolutionists, and extend their minds just as fully. Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that.Gopnik then tackels the "Better-Nevers" In brief:
The books by the Better-Nevers are more moving than those by the Never-Betters for the same reason that Thomas Gray was at his best in that graveyard: loss is always the great poetic subject.He doesn't review Morozov, but his book would probably fall halfway here, halfway in the Better-Waser group, which says the Net isn't a utopia, but we've heard similar complaints about other technology.
Chris Lehmann has a similar review of Shirky, with some Morozov, at The Nation.
Lehmann labels Shirky as not only a hand-waving utopian optimist, but a vignette-as-authoritarian writer of the same ilk as Malcolm Gladwell. It’s also clear that Shirky has more than a touch of the economic libertarian in him, deriding, or seeming to, much of the liberal-developed social contract of the last century or so in the U.S and elsewhere in the western world.
Meanwhile, a leaked e-mail from HBGary, one of the companies that wanted to spy on “Anonymous” and online supporters of it and Julian Assange, shows it has plans to ramp up corporate online sockpuppetry to a whole new level. So much for Shirky's alleged Internet egalitarianism.
Via Jim Lippard, here's a dystopian take on Morozov as being over-dystopian.
The main takeaway I get from this review of Morozov is that the reviewer thinks he's being too dismissive of the possibility of the Internet transforming democratic action.
I disagree. I think, at least in the democratic U.S., governments have found new stasis or equilibrium, a la the "hype cycle" graphic Lippard mentioned.
Above the level of a small-town city council, do governments even take notice of e-mail action alert e-mails any more? Do you think they do? Do you, like me, assume they don't, and so participate in fewer such campaigns?
Or, are you a bit more skeptical of human psychology than that, even? Do you believe the ease of an e-mail alert is a salve for the conscience, an easy "indulgence" similar to buying carbon credits rather than taking real action against global warming? (See here for my thoughts on carbon credit indulgences.)
In other words, does the Internet have a tendency to foster "slacktivism"? Yes. Is that better than nothing at all? Yes. How much better will decide whether you lean toward Morozov or Shirky.
Now, I don't claim to have the answers for something more than that, but, I do think that's another fact that Net utopians don't address. In short, Shirky's utopianism about the Net is matched, possibly, by a utopianism about human nature.
But, at the same time, we don't need to go abroad, or leave the land of democracy, to talk about governments abusing the Internet
I mentioned HB Gary above. We don't even need to do that.
Under the Bush Administration (and perhaps still ongoing with Team Obama), the FBI spied on, harassed, and even arrested on flimsy charges individuals involved in peace/antiwar groups. How much of that was enabled by electronic snooping, or even electronic sockpuppetry?
And, let's not forget the Patriot Act itself and the Internet spying it allows.
For Shirky to write his utopian BS without even discussing that? Unconscionable. If the mainstream media did something like that, he'd be vomiting all over the Internet.
Anyway, the reality is that 20 years from now, much of the Net will be Russian, Chinese and Nigeria spammers talking to each other anyway.
So, the portion of the Net that’s not foreign money spammers 20 years from now will be Big Biz PR spammers. Or, speaking of Russia and China, more and more of it will be cyberwarfare.
Update: Add alleged skeptic, but real pseudoskeptic, Michael Shermer, to the list of cyberutopians. He's so bad he believes Ray Kurzweiil's prediction that the Singularity will arrive by 2030.