The modern internet – a perspective.
A very thoughtful article from an interesting website.
By definition, everyone reading this article will be doing it as a result of the incredible advances in digital communications. Thus it was that from today’s issue of Naked Capitalism there was reference to an article on a website called The Scholarly Kitchen, a site that I hadn’t come across before. I won’t reproduce the article in full – that doesn’t seem right. But I will present extracts to give you an idea of the thrust of the article.
The article is called The Battle for Control – What People who worry about the Internet are really worried about. Here’s how it starts:
Over the past few years, we’ve been witness to a parade of partisans in the debate over whether the Internet is making us smarter and more capable or turning us into shallow and superficial information parasites.
Nicholas Carr carries the most water for this argument, but others have joined in. Usually, their arguments that we’re going too far, becoming too fragmented, or becoming distracted are positioned to seem as if they have our best interests at heart — concern for our minds, our families, our communities, our culture.
. . . the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic. . . . The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that . . . books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others.
A recent post by Jeff Jarvis puts what he calls “the distraction trope” into perspective. Instead of worrying about whether our brains, families, or communities are changing, Jarvis strips away that sophistry and lays bare something more primal that seems to be at stake:
And isn’t really their fear . . . that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting. We triumphalists — I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform — argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.
Throughout history, this fear of losing control has been consistently masked as concerns for higher, even altruistic interests. Jarvis quotes Erasmus (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s new book, “Divine Art, Infernal Machine“), who said during the proliferation of books:
To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books? . . . the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful. [The minds of men,] flighty and curious of anything new [are lured] away from the study of old authors.
Erasmus was worried about losing control over a world he’d mastered through his knowledge of old authors and stable cultural touchstones, and Carr is worried about losing control over a way of studying and thinking and processing information he’s become adept with. These are not the political leaders of the Middle East who are concerned about destabilization at an entirely different level (but for some of the same basic reasons, and from some of the same fundamental causes). Control has a softer side than anything we’d associate with authoritarianism.
Control can be channeled from competence and tradition. Change threatens both of these.
Do cut across and read the full article – it really is worth reading. It concludes thus:
It’s not that one is all good and one is all bad. There is a trade-off, an elusive balance, a mix of benefits and traits. In writing that seems prescient to both the pros and cons of humanity’s continuing exploration of its boundaries, Sigmund Freud once wrote:
Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.
We may argue again and again whether the Internet is changing our brains, elevating us, lowering us, making us smarter, or making us stupid. But at the end of the day, it seems the real argument is about control — who has it, who shares it, and who wants it.
So, despite all the partisans, sophistry, and essays about our brains, our culture, our souls, it’s important to remember that what we’re really arguing about is control.
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.