From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 31, 2007*: The internet and some of its discontents.

For perhaps half a year now I've been collecting material for a column that deals with popular perceptions of the internet. From the outset, it was clear to me that this was most certainly a case of biting off much more than I could chew, but I continued collecting just the same. In addition, though I clung to the gut-feeling that there was something of worth in trying to examine some of those perceptions, most of them simply didn't seem to merit much attention. Luckily, I had other topics to write about, so that I didn't feel a pressing need to organize the assorted quotes and observations that were accumulating in my files and try to make sense out of them. But Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance lecture of about a month ago somehow goaded me, spurred me on toward actually writing something on the topic. Lessing, in a lecture that sometimes thrillingly shows us the place of books and reading in even the poorest of economic surroundings, also lets us know that the internet is to blame for many of our social ills:

And just as we never once stopped to ask, How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.
A whole generation, we read, has been "seduced" into the "inanities" of a technology, or of what that technology has to ... shall we say "offer"? I'm far from enamored of much of today's culture, but I find it difficult not to ask - is the internet really the prime culprit? Doris Lessing also mentions television, grouping the two into what are, I suppose the destructive duo of western culture, but even so, she seems to give top billing to the internet.

Lessing is hardly original here. About eight months earlier Elton John also informed us of the dangers of the internet, telling us:
The internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff.
There's something a bit confusing about this particular statement. After all, within the western cultural tradition the act of being "creative" has often been looked upon as something highly individual or personal, something that somehow takes place when we're alone, by ourselves. There's something rather Web 2.0-ish in John's (should it be Elton's?) suggestion that creativity and "being with each other" actually go together. Ordinarily, critics of the internet pejoratively refer to "the hive mind", hinting that the crowd is actually dumb and works against fostering actual creativity. Yet here he both criticizes the internet, yet also praises a characteristic that's often seen as it's weakness.

Personally, I don't enjoy attending mass sporting events, but when I watch them on television I certainly don't get the impression that people aren't going out, aren't congregating in the thousands. However, even if it's true that people are no longer congregating in groups outside their homes, laying the blame on the internet seems a rather brash thing to do. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone was first published in 2000, but the essay from which the book was expanded saw publication in 1995, considerably before mass internet access could be considered a serious social ill. Yet even then Putnam was already bemoaning a decline in "social capital", telling us that people weren't congregating as they once did. In one frequently quoted passage from Putnam's book we read that:
Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values - these and other factors in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live.
Shouldn't the internet have been in that list as one of the culprits of that social decline? Some people certainly thought so. Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil was also first published in 1995, and even back then Stoll was warning us that true human communication was in danger of disappearing because of our internet addiction. On the other hand, already in 1993, Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community, a book which suggested that rather than breaking down a sense of belonging, the internet was actually creating new means of giving it expression. Today it's hard not to get the impression that more than just a bit of Rheingold's optimism sprang at least from the people who were using the internet than from the "tool" itself, but studies have continued to show that, at the very least, an unraveling of social ties and the internet do not necessarily go together. Then again, we're quite adept at seeing what we hope to see, and when it comes to the internet, that adeptness seems limitless.

At this point in my writing, however, I've encountered a problem. For me, a Boidem column is ordinarily an adventure - a thought experiment that starts at some relatively clear understanding that I've achieved, and then, through holding that understanding up to the refractions that a hypertextual examination generates and perhaps even demands, leads me to unfamiliar terrain, ends up in unmapped territory where I find myself asking more questions than I've answered. But try as I may, I find it hard to do that this time. I may express regret that Doris Lessing doesn't like the internet, and feel discomfort at the fact that Elton John doesn't seem to understand the medium, but I'm certainly not surprised. Rather than discovering something new about the internet, or about my relationship toward it, all I've basically done here is to take relatively casual potshots at a couple of very easy targets. I haven't learned anything about the internet through reacting here to what they've had to say. I can't even claim, as Douglas Rushkoff does in the latest edition of Edge, that he's changed his mind about the internet:
I thought that it would change people. I thought it would allow us to build a new world through which we could model new behaviors, values, and relationships. In the 90's, I thought the experience of going online for the first time would change a person's consciousness as much as if they had dropped acid in the 60's.
I greatly respect Rushkoff's candor, but to be honest, I've got to admit that if I ever really held similar apocalyptic expectations, I lost them long ago. (I'm sure I've covered territory of this sort numerous times before, but a column of almost eight years ago comes most readily to mind.) As much as I might wish to identify with Rushkoff, the truth is that I hardly allowed myself to get my hopes up too high. If anything, the eleven and a half years of Boidem columns so far have focused more on the micro than on the macro, have tried to pinpoint incremental changes rather than cataclysmic ones. More often than not I've even asked whether what's often heralded as new - a new way of dealing with information, a new way of communicating, and more - isn't really a not so original iteration on something we were familiar with well before the internet.

But if, in closing, we can return to Doris Lessing, it's worth noting that just before her scathing critique of the internet, she also asked an important, even pressing, question: "How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet". Lessing was of course wrong in stating that we (whomever "we" are) never stopped to ask this question. Though she can perhaps be excused for taking such a simplistic view of what the internet "really" is, I'm less inclined to excuse her for not recognizing that cyberspace is filled with captivating attempts to deal with precisely that question. But as fascinating, and as thought provoking, as that question is, it would seem that Rushkoff offers us the simplest, the most direct, and sadly, perhaps also the most accurate and least encouraging answer to that question: they're not.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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