Friday, February 17, 2006

A web of lies?

Is there a fine line between technology boosterism and radical utopianism? Are the revolutionary technologies of today leading us down the dystopian path of other revolutionary movements of the recent past, like Communism? One person who answers "yes" to that question is Andrew Keen, the proprietor of "The Great Seduction", a website devoted to exposing the dangers of utopian technophilia, and the author of this article exposing the radical beliefs of the Web 2.0 movement.

SO WHAT, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? As an ideology, it is based upon a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology. It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone--even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us--can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 "empowers" our creativity, it "democratizes" media, it "levels the playing field" between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is "elitist" traditional media.

Empowered by Web 2.0 technology, we can all become citizen journalists, citizen videographers, citizen musicians. Empowered by this technology, we will be able to write in the morning, direct movies in the afternoon, and make music in the evening.

Sounds familiar? It's eerily similar to Marx's seductive promise about individual self-realization in his German Ideology:

Whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the '60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google's Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of Craigslist.com), intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris "Long Tail" Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O'Reilly and John Batelle.

The ideology of the Web 2.0 movement was perfectly summarized at the Technology Education and Design (TED) show in Monterey, last year, when Kevin Kelly, Silicon Valley's ├╝ber-idealist and author of the Web 1.0 Internet utopia Ten Rules for The New Economy, said:

Imagine Mozart before the technology of the piano. Imagine Van Gogh before the technology of affordable oil paints. Imagine Hitchcock before the technology of film. We have a moral obligation to develop technology.

But where Kelly sees a moral obligation to develop technology, we should actually have--if we really care about Mozart, Van Gogh and Hitchcock--a moral obligation to question the development of technology.

The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts. Its empowering promises play upon that legacy of the '60s--the creeping narcissism that Christopher Lasch described so presciently, with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.

Another word for narcissism is "personalization." Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves.


While it is very easy to draw parallels between the utopian beilefs of Marxists and the radical technophiles that Keen quotes, it is important to make the distinction between a political ideology that sought to impose its utopian vision through political revolutions, and the utopian beliefs of free market entrepreneurs that seek to enable their vision through the introduction of new technologies in the marketplace. While the new technologies may give people the fantasy that they can create music to equal Mozart, or films to equal Hitchcock, the very same technologies will expose their works to a public that will quite cruelly put them in their rightful place of worth.

I don't buy the narcissism rap, at least as it applies to the people who are taking advantage of the new web technologies. Of the bloggers that I know, (including myself), none of them imagine themselves to be Edward R Murrow or even Glenn Reynolds, for that matter. I'd estimate that 95% of bloggers are in it as a hobby, and don't imagine that they'll earn any greater benefit than to converse with other like-minded people on topics that interest them.

The technologies will make it easier for those people with the talents to be the next Mozart or Hitchcock or Murrow to cut their teeth inexpensively, and to be noticed by the people who can promote them to the position of recognition that they deserve. That is a good thing.

The biggest risk that the techno-utopians risk is that their visions flop in the marketplace, and they lose money and hopefully their delusions. Technology cannot turn dross into gold, it can only make it easier to produce both.

11 Comments:

Blogger Brit said...

Your analysis is accurate enough, I think, Duck.

People have always painted, played music, written poetry, discussed politics for their own amusement, and they also like to be read and seen and appreciated, even if only by a few people.

Web technologies might give people brief delusions of acheiving fame and immortality, but soon enough they realise that even the web - or maybe especially the web, since it's so inconceivably vast - essentially provides nothing more than a creative outlet and a nice format for amusing yourself and your friends and family, with the great advantage of eliminating the importance of geography.

That's enough for most people, I should think.

February 17, 2006 8:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I would note that any number of "amateurs" are better writers and thinkers than their "professional" counterparts.

February 17, 2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Many scientific discoveries and technological innovations were made by amateurs. Anything that keeps the amateur movement going is good in my book.

I think that narcissism is the most widely overdiagnosed social disease of our age. Everyone knows other people who are narcissists, but noone will admit to it themselves. Keen is himself a blogger, so I wonder where he imagines that he derived the professional qualifications to comment on the state of art and journalism.

Especially in the arts the "professionalization" of artists into an elite priesthood has had the effect that something is art if an art expert says it is. So we have sugar packets presented as art, and art critics telling us that we ought not be impatient in our appreciation of such art.

I think that Keen is afraid that the internet will only breed more sugar packet artists. Maybe so, but it will also tear down the wall of censorship that the professional art community has erected to prevent anything but sugar packet art from being presented as art. Likewise with the MSM. When an elite gets entrenched in a position of authority over some aspect of culture, it as often as not acts like a monopoly working for its own interests, rather than the quality of the cultural product it distributes. Narcissism is as much a motivating factor for elites as it is for amateurs.

February 17, 2006 10:05 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Congratulations Duck, in Keen's article, you've identified the single most absurd piece I've seen written this year. The wonderful irony of using technology to disseminate anti-technology screeds.

Oops, I guess I shouldn't be commenting on this blog when I could be listening to Mozart! I better not post on my blog again either - I should go watch a Hitchcock movie instead, and heaven help me if I ever actually read an old post - I'd just be getting more of myself, and we can't have that, can we?

February 17, 2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone--even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us...

Hang on, that's ME that he's talking about !

...economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris "Long Tail" Anderson...

Except that "The Long Tail" isn't "Web 2.0", it's pure classic economics, that Adam Smith would have understood.
It's simply an attempt to explain how lowering the marginal costs of warehousing and distribution will result in A LOT MORE choice and content.

Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

Pure rubbish.
I've already written, in other threads here and at Great Guys, about how participating in blogging has doubled my store of highest-order knowledge.

That didn't occur because my already-existing knowledge was mirrored back to me, despite the fact that most of my time was spent at places that I liked, and that became quite familiar to me.

Further, even though we're surrounded in the real world by content and goods not to our liking, we mostly indulge in what we already know that we like.

We watch television shows that we already like, we buy the same brands of the same products, we buy magazines that we've enjoyed in the past, we read authors whose previous works we enjoyed...

Humans who don't know what they like are known as children.

A personalized 'net merely reflects how we arrange things off-line.

February 17, 2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

... participating in blogging has doubled my store of highest-order knowledge.

For me, quintupled.

But I started from a lower baseline.

Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts.

Of all the hogwash, this is the hoggiest.

Through blogs, I have learned far more about others' points of view than I could have hoped to otherwise.

I'm guessing this guy is from the unreconstructed Left; otherwise, there is no explaining drawing conclusions so adrift from glaringly obvious reality.

February 18, 2006 2:13 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper, now tell us how you REALLY feel about the "unreconstructed Left." :-)

February 18, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, I'd sure rather have MY taste thrown back at me than somebody else's, which may be why I don't watch television.

But, as usual in Silicon Valley, history started in 1949.

Does this nitwit think that every Tom, Dick and Amy wasn't writing truly execrable poetry in the 19th century; or that 99.99% of the recordings that got waxed in the classic era of rock n roll were not atrocious?

If you can find it, the first edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations will open your eyes. There probably are not two quotations in there that are familiar to any of us.

Another example: the opening lines of Remarque's 'Im Westen Nicht Neues' refer to the hero's unfinished play, numbered among 'a million' other unfinished plays in the desk drawers of young Europeans.

While on one hand, the Web has multiplied the amount of information (and disinformation) beyond anything known earlier; on the other it tends to deposit most of it in irrecoverable sediments, so that when digerati look for information, what they retrieve is pretty well limited to the first page of a Google search.

February 19, 2006 11:43 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

..."what they retrieve is pretty well limited to the first page of a Google search."

The first three results on the first Google page...or what it says on Wikipedia (which is a whole other can of worms).

February 20, 2006 2:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Something we can agree on. I was going to say three but decided that was too snarky.

February 20, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Which is why a talent for picking good searchwords is valuable.

But really, doing only one Google search is just lazy, even if you only pick references from the first page of each search.

February 20, 2006 8:18 PM  

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