Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The backlash against the Internet

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the way the Internet promotes amateurism, and whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. Capsule summary: everybody is an amateur at first; every profession grew out of people innovating and trying things. The Internet makes this happen faster. My notes are below with some links at the bottom.

There was a book out a month or two ago called the Cult of the Amateur – the author, Andrew Keen, was interviewed here. The subtitle of the book is how blogs, wikis, social networking and the digital world are assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. From reading his blog, his point seems to be that the democratizing effect of the Internet allows amateurs to work on things, to write about things, to create things, that are properly in his opinion the domain of professionals.

Q: Doesn’t he have a point about the quality of some blogs?

A: If his point is that there’s a lot of badly-written opinionated twaddle out there, then he’s absolutely right. No two people actually agree on which is twaddle and which is thought-provoking, edgy or humorous. He has a go at Wikipedia as well. Yes, there are issues with people out there editing their own Wikipedia pages, or those of their enemies, but a recent analysis of inaccuracies showed that Encyclopedia Britannica contains just as many.

Q: Surely he is right to complain about some of the amateurism out there?

A: Why? Amateurism is how people get started, how people innovate, how everything new appears. George Bernard Shaw once said that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.

Q: I wouldn’t want an amateur operating on me!

A: That’s not what we are talking about, though is it? We are talking about people getting access to knowledge that was previously the domain of professionals only, and sometimes daring to have opinions about it! Some people have always resisted each new medium as it has come along.

Media critic Dr Neil Postman was particularly offended by the presentation of television news with all the trappings of entertainment programming, including theme music and “talking hairdos.” He said that complicated truths could only be rationally conveyed in the printed word – not radio, sorry, so I guess we are both wasting our time. His most famous book is called “Amusing ourselves to death” and it’s worth a read if you have time. I’m not sure what he’d think about blogs – they are written words, after all.

I’ve got some more quotes for you. Here’s Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain:

Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.

Q: Was he serious?

A: Apparently so. And he would have been a contemporary of Charles Darwin, one of the world’s great amateurs. The word “amateur” by the way, simply means a lover – those of us who did high school Latin might remember amo, amas, amat – and an amateur is someone who does something out of the love of it rather than for money.

Q: Like the old distinctions on the rugby field!

A: Exactly so. But we aren’t living in the Victorian age any more, with a class of highly educated and independently wealthy people who could pursue whatever they fancied for as long as they wished. Almost all of us have to find a way to earn our way in the world – making a living is not optional – and it’s a bonus if we can do something we love in the process.

Anyway, I have some more quotes for you about new media:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

Would you care to guess the source of that quote?

Q: A musician, presumably

A: Quite – John Phillip Sousa, who would probably be turning in his grave if he knew our generation thinks of him as the composer of the theme music to Monty Python – and there, he is talking about the evil that is the player piano. He wanted it banned. Heaven knows what he would have thought about the iPod. Another quote:

The growing and dangerous intrusion of this new technology is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman alone.

Q: You’ve used that one before!

A: Yes, I know, but it’s so good. It’s Hollywood’s main lobbyist of the late twentieth testifying before Congress about the quote appalling consequences that would ensure if Congress were to make video recorders legal. Another:

Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

Q: That could be anyone…

A: Of course it could. It’s actually Plato in his most famous surviving work The Republic, proving that despite two and half thousand years of technological and cultural development, some of our attitudes have yet to change.

Another story: there’s a rather racy article in a back copy of Electrical World magazine called “The Dangers of Wired Love”. It’s about a Brooklyn newsstand owner called George McCutcheon who wanted to get wired up so he could quickly and accurately order new stock. George got his daughter Maggie to operate it for him. Soon he discovered that she had been using it to flirt with various men and was now actually seeing a married man whom she had met over the wires. The magazine article relates George’s shock. It wasn’t the Internet, though – this took place in 1886 and George and Maggie were connected to the world by the telegraph.

Q: So you are saying that people have always resisted new media and we should see Andrew Keen’s work in the same light?

A: Pretty much. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and TV – they have all transformed the worlds they arrived into. They have all had their detractors, the disapproval, sometimes official attempts at suppression. One of the major concerns about the printing press was that it would allow unlicensed translations of the bible to be circulated. Well, here we are a few centuries later and things have gone a bit further than that. The Roman Catholic Church always used to maintain a list of proscribed books; it may still. TV was supposed to rot the minds of my generation – but it was my cohort who stood up and demonstrated against the Vietnam War that played out on our TV screens every night.

There have been attempts to suppress the Internet. In China and Saudi Arabia, for instance, all access to the Internet is through government-controlled filters. North Korea has never allowed its citizens to have access, although I saw a report the other day that they are going to change that. You can be locked up for years in Myanmar for owning a modem. And Saddam Hussein once said that the Internet was the end of civilizations, cultures, interests and ethics.

The Internet has gone from being a geek playground to an essential for more than half the households in the Western world in little more than a decade. No-one forced people to install it. The point is that the Internet is popular – not in the way that, say, Coronation Street is popular, appealing strongly to a particular group while most of us don’t care, but more in the way that cars are popular. There’s a group of anti’s, a group of petrol-heads, and a large majority of people who regard them as an essential tool. So it is with the Internet. And the Internet doesn’t have the kind of human and environmental costs that cars have.

Andrew Marr, the former political editor of the BBC, says in his TV documentary The History of Modern Britain – well worth watching when it finally gets here – that the invention of the World Wide Web is the single most important factor in the economy going forward. He picked the Web rather than the Internet itself, I suspect, because it was invented by a Briton, but that’s quibbling.

It was an Internet journalist who blew the Monica Lewinsky affair open, for instance, proving that being technologically liberal doesn’t mean being politically liberal. Internet is giving new young musicians their first breaks – like the Arctic Monkeys, for instance, or New Zealand’s Pitchblack, while the record companies churn out endless bubblegum. Youtube gives us the opportunity to share video around the globe. Sure, a high proportion is crud, but then is TV really any better in that regard?

One final story: through 1996 and 1997, a British team was determined to break the land speed record and go supersonic on land. It hadn’t been done before and it hasn’t since, incidentally. Anyway, they used the web to the max. The technology was in its infancy then, but they put up a huge website and updated the work about every detail of their campaign and added fresh material every few hours. And that paid dividend for them: when they ran out of all the money get could beg, borrow and get in sponsorship, in their final weeks before the record breaking run they went to their Internet audience and said: help us please. You have believed in us enough to follow us on the Web – believe in us enough to buy a T shirt, or send us $50, or whatever. And it worked – they got enough extra funds from the Internet appeal to break the record.

It’s easy to be cynical about the impact of media – but communicating and co-operating is what we humans do that makes us special. And the Internet, the World Wide Web, and now Web 2.0 with its blogs, wikis and Youtube make us far better able to communicate and cooperate.


Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur.

A Wikipedia article about its own reliability, with lots of links to studies about it, and another on media critic Neil Postman.

The website of land speed record holder ThrustSSC and a page about their fundraising.

posted by colin at 11:45 am  

1 Comment

  1. N9mbQG comment1 ,

    Comment by Qvfwvslw — 8 May 2009 @ 11:29 pm

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