The net effect

The following essay about the web and my book The Blogging Revolution, by Richard King, appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 3:

Good, bad or a bit of both? Richard King asks whether the internet serves us, or we serve it.

Perhaps new technologies meet with suspicion because of the perception they extend the reach of humankind while detracting human nature. Even the esteemed technology of writing met resistance from Socrates, who in Plato’s Phaedrus puts forward the view that while writing may give the appearance of wisdom, it does so at the expense of genuine insight.

Similarly, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, plenty of voices were raised in horror at the prospect of ignorant churchgoers reading the Holy Book for themselves. Not to mention all those out-of-work scribes covering the city walls with graffiti.

It’s easy to mock these doomsayers, but I sometimes wonder if it isn’t too easy. Negative Nancies they may be, but there are plenty of Pollyannas too, and they need to be treated with just as much caution. Luddite, now a term of gentle abuse denoting a fogeyish attitude to technology, refers to the 19th century artisans who protested against industrialisation, often by destroying mechanised looms. But the connection between the old sense of the word and current usage is far from watertight. The socialist historian E.P. Thompson suggested that Luddism should be understood, not as a fear of change per se, but as an attempt to alter the course of change, to steer the Industrial Revolution away from a rigidly free-market ethos. Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley or an account of a 19th century slum, who dares call that objective naive?

The revolutionary technology of today is, of course, the internet, and the speed with which it has taken hold has meant that the question of whether it is a good thing, a bad thing or a bit of both will inevitably bring to mind the image of someone shutting a stable door as a horse disappears over the nearest hill. Nevertheless, the question is an important one and is rather neatly summarised by the words we use to describe the phenomenon. For although we talk of the web and the net, we rarely go on to specify whether we, the users, regard ourselves as the spiders or the flies, the fishermen or the fish.

Recently I read that George Orwell’s diaries are to be published as a daily blog, a project that seems to argue, tacitly, that Orwell would have smiled on the new technology and its apparent capacity to speak truth to power. But for many commentators, not all of them barmy, the internet is Orwellian. Imperfectly objectified in the form of our hard drive, our consciousness is now accessible to a degree unthinkable in the recent past. The screen looks in as well as out. We all live in the Big Brother house.

And so, as the internet gallops into the future, the questions about it multiply. Is it on the side of freedom? And what freedom are we talking about? Is the price of connection to the internet a social and spiritual disconnection? How is it possible to confer cultural value when Britney Spears’s Wikipedia page is almost three times as long as George Eliot’s? In short, what does it mean to be a netizen?

In The Blogging Revolution, the Sydney journalist and blogger Antony Loewenstein addresses the first of these questions head on, travelling to Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China in an attempt to discover the effect that the internet, and especially blogging, has had and is having. To this end, he talks to dissidents, writers, journalists, students and even officials. It has been said the internet has the power to fulfil an oppositional role in politics analogous to that played by photocopiers and fax machines in the lead-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, for governments that know what they’re doing, it is also possible to use the internet to keep an eye on subversive activity. In non- and semi-democratic countries, the internet is less a double-edged sword than a gun with a lethal tendency to backfire.

Consequently, the picture is extremely mixed. In Syria the online restrictions are such that one blogger is moved to comment, sardonically, that communications would improve significantly upon reintroduction of the carrier pigeon. Officials in Egypt, though willing to embrace the economic benefits of the new technology, are extremely wary of internal dissent, much of which comes from the Muslim Brotherhood. (One of Loewenstein’s more interesting findings is that many Middle Eastern bloggers are Islamists, some of them operating with official backing.) In Cuba the internet is almost non-existent and certainly plays no major role in organising political opposition, while in China “the regime has virtually perfected the art of internet censorship”. The Government employs around 40,000 technocrats whose job is to trawl the internet, keeping tabs on user content. “Applicants for the positions,” writes Loewenstein, “are offered lessons in Marxist theory, internet development and propaganda techniques.”

There is a contradiction at the heart of this book. On the one hand, Loewenstein is at pains to stress his misgivings about “official media”, which he accuses of being on the side of power, and his admiration for the bloggers who, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, offered “criticism and cynicism and challenged the top-down approach of corporate media”. On the other hand, it is clear that the blogging revolution described in his title is largely non-existent and that, of the bloggers he interviews, most are more interested in sex and shopping than in effecting any sort of political change.

However, Loewenstein rescues his title by suggesting this non-political emphasis stands as a rebuke to those Western imperialists who would seek to impose their own way of life on “repressive” states (his quote marks, not mine). According to Loewenstein, most Chinese people are pretty happy living in a dictatorship. (Even if this is true, and I doubt it, what does it say about Loewenstein that he’d rather stress the happy majority than show solidarity with the unhappy minority?). The book is littered with egregious moral equivalences. For example, the Chinese regime is described as displaying “almost Nixonian paranoia”, while in Saudi Arabia “stories of humiliation, rape, bad pay and psychological torture suggested an underclass in the Middle East not unlike sections of the Hispanic community in America”.

How “not unlike” is that, exactly? He is, at best, mealy-mouthed about Iran and seems to think that he’s the first to point out the paradoxical nature of Iranian society. “This was not at all what I had been expecting – this brash modernity in which people used iPods and SMS with the same feverish attention as those in any international city.” Yes, I remember watching a film of a young woman being hanged for adultery. As the mobile crane was moved into place, a few sadistically grinning youths were preparing to capture the moment on their mobile phones. Feverish attention, indeed.

Still, at least Loewenstein retains some faith in the power of the internet to change the world for the better, an assertion that can certainly not be made in the case of the American journalist Lee Siegel. As evidenced by the rather sniffy subtitle of Against The Machine: Being Human In The Age Of The Electronic Mob, Siegel is no internet fan. He is even less of a fan of blogging, for reasons very close to home. In 2006 Siegel was writing a culture blog for The New Republic. So enraged by the abusive comments he was getting, he decided to ignore the age-old advice never get into a fight with a chimney sweep. Going undercover as a commenter himself, he attacked the attackers in splenetic terms, while praising his own stuff to the skies. Unmasked, he was suspended from the magazine and loudly mocked throughout the blogosphere. He now insists this was a prank. If so, it was a sinister one. “Who am I?”, he demanded of one commenter. “Someone who knows who you are.”

Looked at cynically, Siegel’s Against The Machine is an attempt to rescue some dignity by turning this rather sordid affair into something higher-minded than it actually was. But Siegel makes important points. “The internet didn’t supersede the printing press. The printer superseded it.” Siegel prefers the car analogy. “Like the car, the internet has been made out to be a miracle of social and personal transformation when it is really a marvel of convenience – and in the case of the internet, a marvel of convenience that has caused a social and personal upheaval.”

Siegel sees the internet as an aspect of broader cultural trends and, to take it at its own estimation, Against The Machine is a serious attempt to put it into historical context. It will come as no surprise to learn that economic individualism is the principal motor of the current epoch, and the book is sprinkled with references to Marx, as well as less august futurologists, whom Siegel all but accuses of complicity in the conspiracy to turn us all into “prosumers” – producer-consumers. Also culpable are Method acting, confessional literature and dance music, all of which are evidence of a growing emphasis on the “performing self”. But the crucial development, in Siegel’s view, is the shift from popular or mass culture to a culture of participation. In the past, we had culture for the masses. Now we have culture by the masses, in which the loudest, most outrageous voice will prevail. “Enchantment of the imagination has given way to gratification of the ego; vicarious transport out of yourself has given way to . . . yourself.”

There is truth to this, but Siegel’s intemperate tone might suggest The New Republic controversy affected him more than he lets on. Certainly, he shows signs of habituation to the intellectual style of some bloggers. For one thing, his thesis is way over the top. He even compares the furore over the fake YouTube diarist lonelygirl15 with George Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction. He is preternaturally shrill. No great stylist himself, he belabours others for their stylistic infelicities, and accuses “dead tree” journalists of lacking the courage to stand up to the internet. He writes of one blogger-turned-journalist: “Jarvis’s story is all about Jarvis,”, yet Siegel’s book is all about Siegel.

If Siegel’s aim is to put the internet into a cultural and historical context, Susan Greenfield’s is to put it into a scientific one – specifically, a neuroscientific one. Siegel is surely right to say that the internet did not develop in a vacuum. However, an effect can become a cause and it is with the various ways that the internet is effectively reconfiguring our brains that Greenfield, an eminent British scientist and baroness, is explicitly concerned. “My recurring theme,” she writes in her preface to ID: The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century , “is the dynamism, the plasticity, of the human brain.”
To what extent, and in what ways, have technologies of recent years altered our brains and thus our identities? Greenfield suggests the internet is turning us into what she calls Nobodies. Here, she compares the “people of the screen” with the “people of the book”.
She invites us to compare the book’s continuous narrative with the mentality engendered by the internet, “with its icon-laden, text-light multimedia pyrotechnics”. “Might it just be the case,” asks Greenfield, “that constant, fast-paced and noisy thrills and spills, with one screen image tumbling in after the other, could well militate against the long spans of attention that we of the 20th century have taken so much for granted?”

Thinking skills may atrophy and the Net Generation become permanently stuck in a state of semi-infancy in which the ability to confer value and trustworthiness by comparing one thing to another has all but disappeared. “For us People of the Book, an icon on the screen can be a symbol for many other things . . . [But] how many of those born in the 1990s . . . would actually recognise and understand the significance of that most-used icon, the egg-timer?’

Egg-timers aside, it’s clear that Greenfield has ignored a wealth of cultural data in order to arrive at this hypothesis, not least the phenomenon of the Harry Potter books, which, regardless of their literary merit, have taught an entire generation how to read for pleasure. Indeed, at times she sounds less like a neuroscientist and more like a member of the British House of Lords (which, by an amazing coincidence, she is). Her grasp of the new technology seems dubious, while such practical measures as she recommends – “Perhaps software could be developed that at least has built-in pause times” – are half-baked to say the least.

Still, I suppose that’s to be expected. It has been said that while children love the world and teenagers are revolted by it, there comes a point in everyone’s life when one simply ceases to understand it. The pace of change is now so rapid that this stage is reached sooner rather than later, and if one point emerges from these three books it’s that our understanding of Internet Man, of Homo interneticus, is patchy at best. “The internet”, writes Siegel, “is the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.” Just because he’s biased doesn’t mean he’s wrong.