Democracy in Internetia

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values
by Andrew Keen
Doubleday, 2007, 256 pages.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2008, 336 pages.

More than anything else, Keen thinks Web 2.0 is an open conspiracy to get something for nothing. The moguls provide the software that suborns digital theft in exchange for online advertising revenue; the gurus justify said larceny by saying patently silly things like “information wants to be free” in exchange for consulting fees; and the Internetians just steal, and steal, and steal again. The problem is that you can’t get something for nothing forever. “What you may not realize,” Keen warns, “is that what is free [on the Internet] is actually costing us a fortune.” Somebody has to suffer, something must be lost, and the piper must eventually be paid. In the short term, he says, the victims of the “great seduction” will be creative professionals who live by copyright and ad revenue, e.g., journalists, musicians, filmmakers, TV producers, writers, editors, and the enterprises that support the production and distribution of their work. The gurus go on and on about the evolution of a “new business model” that will somehow magically funnel lost revenues back to what they call “content providers” (an unlovely phrase if ever there was one), but as Keen points out, no such model exists today, and the gurus are hopelessly vague about what it might look like. Meanwhile, newspapers, record companies, broadcast TV networks, and other cultural institutions are going broke. When they do, Keen predicts, we will all suffer.
The new winners—Google, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie—are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated, or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites “aggregate.” Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content it craves.
It’s not that there won’t be any more journalism, music, or video after the professionals have been swept from the field. Indeed, there will probably be more than ever before. It’s just that it will all be frightfully amateurish, because it will have all been made by amateurs: people like you and me who really have no idea what we’re doing but have been convinced by the “wisdom of crowds” gurus that we do. A million monkeys at typewriters can’t write the New York Times every day, and neither can a million Internetians at their glowing boxes.
Much of Keen’s jeremiad against Web 2.0 is spot on. Too often, the Internet is where “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.” That said, Keen is long on critique and short on solutions. He identifies a number of enterprises—Citizendium, the online version of the Guardian, Joost—that are attempting to use social tools while still maintaining professional standards. The trouble, as Shirky points out, is that they are swimming against a very strong tide. At the moment, the Internetians have at their disposal a massive archive of “content” that has been built up by professional “content providers” over the past century: books, magazines, newspapers, music, photographs, TV shows, videos, films, games, software, etc. Millions of items, all for free. Once the archive has been emptied, of course, things may change. The Internetians may decide that good things are worth paying for. But I doubt it. It’s easy to drop the price of a product, but it’s very hard to raise it if there are near-substitutes available at a lower price. And the Internetians produce near-substitutes by the digital truckload. Most Wikipedia editors aren’t experts, most bloggers aren’t journalists, and most YouTube videographers aren’t filmmakers, but the Internetians don’t seem to care very much. If I had to guess, I’d say they will continue to prefer free mediocrity to even low-cost excellence. This is what Tocqueville would say as well. In the absence of some aristocracy of judgment—and there is none in Internetia—you will always see a rush to the lowest common denominator. And if that lowest common denominator can be produced for free—as it can in Internetia—then nearly everything you have to pay for, no matter how good it is, will be swept away.
For all their apparent differences, both Shirky and Keen share one basic assumption: The Internet is an unprecedented phenomenon with powers so great that it will change the way we live. This is hardly an uncommon position. Indeed, it seems to be held by almost everyone who writes about the Web, supporters and detractors alike. And it seems obviously true. A quarter century ago there was no Internet—now there is. Therefore, the Internet is new. A quarter century ago we didn’t participate in huge online communities devoted to anything and everything we can think of—now we do. Therefore, the Internet is changing the world. The veracity of these arguments appears so self-evident that hardly anyone bothers to try and prove them. Shirky and Keen certainly don’t. Instead, they provide carefully chosen anecdotes to make their respective cases. Shirky has dozens of entertaining stories about how the Internetians are forming all kinds of groups that are “changing the world.” Keen has just as many scintillating horror stories about how the Internetians are destroying vital cultural institutions. All of this is quite entertaining. But anecdotes are merely suggestive, and cannot be taken as proof of anything.
So one is obliged to ask: Is the Internet an unprecedented phenomenon with powers so great that it will change the way we live? Probably not.
The Internet is a medium, a device we use to send, receive, store, and retrieve meaning. As such, it cannot be unprecedented, because it obviously has predecessors, namely earlier media like writing, print, and audiovisual devices. Now it is true that the Internet is new. But if we are to demonstrate that it is novel in some significant, world-changing way—the claim made by most Internet boosters and critics—we would have to identify some significant, world-changing capacity that distinguishes it from earlier media. No one to my knowledge has done this, and it strikes me that no one can. Traditional media—mail, photography, libraries, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, motion pictures, radio, television, and books—permit us to send, receive, store, and retrieve large amounts of data in multiple formats through many kinds of networks and to do so rapidly over large distances. The Internet also permits us to send, receive, store, and retrieve large amounts of data in multiple formats through many kinds of networks, and to do so rapidly over large distances. Using traditional media, we can talk on the phone, compose and exchange messages, write and read books, record and listen to music, capture and view images, make and watch motion pictures, organize and play games, and conduct and store research in libraries. Using the Internet we can talk on Skype, exchange emails, write and read blogs and Web pages, upload and download music, post and look at pictures, make and watch videos, design and play games, and look stuff up and write things down on Wikipedia. If the Internet has any communicative capacity that traditional media do not, I’m having trouble finding it.
So are Shirky and Keen. While they imply that there is some difference in kind between old and new media, they actually focus on differences in degree. Shirky doesn’t say that we can’t form groups in the real world and we can on the Internet; he just says that the Internet makes it easier to do so. Keen doesn’t say that we can’t steal things in the real world and we can on the Internet; he just says that the Internet makes it easier to do so.
While it’s not nearly as sexy as the claim that the Internet has some magical new communicative capacity, the difference-in-degree thesis has the virtue of being true. The Internet does make a lot of things easier, and it does so for some fairly obvious reasons. First, it bundles traditional communications tools into one convenient package. The Internet is a postal service, photograph album, telegraph, telephone, jukebox, movie theater, radio, television, and library all in one. Second, it improves on some of these older technologies. Its postal service is faster, its photo albums richer, its telegraph better, its telephone cheaper, its jukebox more extensive, its movie catalogue bigger, its radio range wider, its television more diverse, and its library larger than its real-world counterparts. Finally, as Shirky rightly emphasizes, it reduces the price of using these tools. On the Web it costs virtually nothing to send, receive, store, and retrieve huge amounts of information in many different formats. This really is new, and it makes getting things done a lot easier. The critic Lee Siegel has argued that the Internet is first and foremost a “marvel of convenience.” That sounds about right to me.
The question we need to ask is whether the Internet is so marvelously convenient as to be the breathtaking, epoch-making, earth-shattering, revolutionary force that Internet boosters—and critics—want us to believe it is. Judging by experience, it clearly is not. The Internet has been around for almost twenty years. That’s not a long time, but it is arguably long enough to see the beginnings of certain long-term trends. So what has really changed over the last twenty years? Look at your own life. If you live in the developed world, you probably do a lot of things online that you used to do in the real world, because they are easier to do online. The venue has changed, as has the amount of energy expended, but the menu of activities has remained roughly the same. Now look at the big picture. Again, if you reside in the developed world, you probably still live in a liberal democracy with a regulated capitalist economy and a consumer culture. Here, almost nothing has changed. It’s hard to argue, then, that a new day has dawned or will dawn anytime soon.
Yet we shouldn’t think that the convenience offered by the Internet isn’t important. It is. The Internet is not going to save us or destroy us. Neither it nor any medium has the power to do either of those things. But it will, as Shirky says, make it easier to form and join associations. It will, as Keen says, challenge traditional media. But more than anything else, the Internet is enabling us to create a richer reflection of human life and imagination.
We use media for all sorts of purposes, but one of the most basic is simple representation. As we’ve accumulated media over the past several thousand years, our ability to represent ourselves and the world we live in has improved. Speech gave us the ability to create and exchange words and—through them—pictures. Writing gave us an instrument to draft and trade these words and pictures in textual form. Print provided a tool to disseminate these texts far and wide. Audiovisual media added the capacity to accurately capture and broadcast sounds and images. With each new form of media, our individual and collective ability to represent our lives and our imaginations has grown. The Internet combines all of these representational methods into one easy-to-use tool. It allows almost everyone to take what’s inside their heads and put it out there for all to see. The Internet may or may not be Shirky’s engine of organization or Keen’s destroyer of culture, but it most definitely is a machine for effortless mass exhibition. The result is plain to see: the spontaneous formation of the greatest “Show and Tell” ever imagined. It shouldn’t surprise us that some of the kids bring nice things (Shirky) and some of the kids bring naughty things (Keen). What should surprise us, and perhaps even delight us, is that for the first time in human history we get to see everything. The Internet is our mirror. Ecce homo.

Marshall Poe is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and the founder of MemoryArchive, a universal, wiki-type collection of contemporary memoirs.

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