If You’re in the Mood to Think Deeply About the Internet . . .

McKay over at State of the Line puts into words a lot of the thoughts that have been going through my own mind. Here are a few excerpts, to give you the flavor, but the whole essay is well-crafted, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.


“What we don’t often discuss is whether or not a culture of instant satisfaction is even a desirable state of living. I’ll admit I’m as guilty of this mindset as anyone else: I feel lost without my phone, become anxious when I cannot check my email for several hours, and become consumed by news and market alerts from the Times and Journal — and that’s before I even start to revel in the abundance of information in my Google Reader feeds. But why do we need this? It’s hard to imagine that just ten years ago, we often had to place a call from a land line to a land line, leave a message, and wait for a response.”
. . .
“The mantra of Web 2.0 is always based around the supposed wisdom of crowds: if you let the aggregated genius of the assembled masses decide it, then you’re bound to get the best and most efficient result. Have we really taken the myth of the rational market this far?”
. . .

“But the releasing of the keys to the free-information demands of the online marketplace is not even the most troubling aspect of the internet’s total cultural penetration. That, I suggest, is the culture of hatred bred by anonymity. What’s most baffling about the trend toward online anonymity is exactly where it came from. When I watch the evening news, I’m not allowed — nor do I feel entitled — to appear in a picture-in-picture window offering sarcastic remarks, thinly veiled insults, and outright sadistic language about the anchors and the stories. So why do we feel this is a fundamental right online? Yes, the web is supposed to be a democratizing tool of great egalitarianism — I understand that. But just because one could say anything he wants doesn’t mean one should. There is something deeply troubling about citizens being able to hide behind online handles and lob verbal grenades toward anything they deem disagreeable, lame, or pointless. Aside from contributing nothing to our conversation, it weakens the intellectual capital of this allegedly revolutionary tool. Why should people bother posting information online when one commenter, emboldened by the freedom of anonymity and feeling empowered to voice his darkest thoughts because it will never be traced to him, can simply make a hateful or racist remark?”
. . .

On Human Connections & The Social Utility Of The Internet

January 22, 2010 by McKay

Since our denunciation of snark in late November, we’ve made an effort around here to post thoughtful, reflective pieces that take a step back from the hyperactive and hyperbolic mood of the blogosphere. I’ve been thinking quite a bit, though, about the very essence of that particular arena, and about the entire networked world that supports it. The internet (the noun seems to have reached a non-capitalization age, no?) is widely heralded by everyone from sociologists to Apple stockholders as the salvation of humanity — the thing that will bring everyone together, result in a technological Age of Aquarius, and connect open-minded people everywhere in a panoply of new ideas and information-sharing mechanisms. To see just how deeply this assumption has become ingrained in our society, just note the Luddite accusations that follow anyone who dares suggest the following: what if the internet’s deleterious effects outweigh its benefits?

The internet, I’d contend, is a technological success — nay, a marvel — but an undeniable failure as a tool of emotional connectivity. I take pains to say it’s not a failure as a tool of human connectivity; its power in allowing me to speak instantly to someone in Malaysia, or email a friend in Britain, is unsurpassed and unlike anything we’ve ever known. Its capability in the arena of communication is not here disputed. As a communication tool, it has revolutionized the way we operate — so much so that it becomes difficult for us to comprehend that letters and conversations once had to wait days while mail was delivered, or months while ships crossed the ocean. (Honestly, can we comprehend that? Or have we become so accustomed to instant responses that our brains can’t quite wrap themselves around it? Paleontologists often speak of the difficulty in communicating the sheer magnitude of time’s passage between dinosaurs and humans; our existences are so short that we truly cannot fathom a span like “millions of years” — is this sort of like that?) It has likewise reshaped the way we do business: the online market connects us to a marketplace of goods and services we never would’ve foreseen, all capable of being delivered in minimal time. All of this has created a culture of instant satisfaction, in which most of our communication and capitalist desires can be satisfied in ever-shorter durations.

What we don’t often discuss is whether or not a culture of instant satisfaction is even a desirable state of living. I’ll admit I’m as guilty of this mindset as anyone else: I feel lost without my phone, become anxious when I cannot check my email for several hours, and become consumed by news and market alerts from the Times and Journal — and that’s before I even start to revel in the abundance of information in my Google Reader feeds. But why do we need this? It’s hard to imagine that just ten years ago, we often had to place a call from a land line to a land line, leave a message, and wait for a response. Today it’s difficult to envision waiting for anything; most news and information is accessible by the click of a mouse or swipe of a touchscreen. However, this seems to have weakened our collective resolve. When everyone can access everything all of the time, the ill effects are two-pronged: first, it makes us spoiled and expectant, assuming that we can get anything as soon as we want it. Second, it weakens the inherent worth of pure waiting, which in turn depreciates the value of patience and appreciation of the final product or idea delivered. The reason patience is said to be a character-building virtue is because it helps us place more context and appreciation on the thing we finally receive; if I’ve not had to endure any kind of wait for something that’s important to me, how do I know to appreciate it? Especially when I can, presumably, receive another just like it in an equally short time span?

The problem spawned by a culture of instant satisfaction is that it somehow convinces us that we deserve things for free. Think about that for a second: the Times employs hundreds of reporters in its newsroom. Those people work to create what’s largely considered to be some of the best journalism in the country (not to mention agenda-setting; it’s often joked that if you want to know what NPR will talk about on Thursday, you should just read the Times on Wednesday). Where on earth did we get the notion that we deserve every ounce of that product completely free? The internet was supposed to connect us to the product, not deliver the product free of charge and render the cost of the effort worthless. Newspapers made a strategic blunder when they imagined they could provide free content and use advertising to support it, and now we’ve all become horribly accustomed to receiving things for free.

The mantra from the supposed gurus of the Web 2.0 revolution, of course, is that information wants to be free. This is patently absurd. The only people who want information to be free are those who can bank a profit from that information’s use: advertisers, online vendors, et al. If I’m the one paying a staff of hundreds to produce that information, what message am I sending to my employees by giving away the product of their work? It’s akin to Honda giving away cars and relying on rear-window advertising to make a profit — how would the legions of assembly line workers feel about placing a value of $0.00 on each car they produce? The mantra of Web 2.0 is always based around the supposed wisdom of crowds: if you let the aggregated genius of the assembled masses decide it, then you’re bound to get the best and most efficient result. Have we really taken the myth of the rational market this far? (There is, in the recession’s wake, a pretty serious backlash against that myth. Can we really assume that a stock’s price reflects all pieces of known information and is adjusted to meet that information? Are we really supposed to believe that human emotion, artificial inflation, and pure market chicanery never plays a role?) As web pioneer Jaron Lanier notes in his new book, crowdsourcing in pursuit of free information can be not just an ill-advised strategy, but a pernicious one; he notes that it leads content-producers “to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.” While the tone is slightly alarmist, Lanier’s point is solid: when we assume we can get anything we want — news articles, images, digital music — for free online, we hurt, and perhaps destroy, the innate worth of what people are producing and sharing. Why should a musician who writes and produces a song, presumably at some expense, be expected to bestow it as a gift upon the world?

But the releasing of the keys to the free-information demands of the online marketplace is not even the most troubling aspect of the internet’s total cultural penetration. That, I suggest, is the culture of hatred bred by anonymity. What’s most baffling about the trend toward online anonymity is exactly where it came from. When I watch the evening news, I’m not allowed — nor do I feel entitled — to appear in a picture-in-picture window offering sarcastic remarks, thinly veiled insults, and outright sadistic language about the anchors and the stories. So why do we feel this is a fundamental right online? Yes, the web is supposed to be a democratizing tool of great egalitarianism — I understand that. But just because one could say anything he wants doesn’t mean one should. There is something deeply troubling about citizens being able to hide behind online handles and lob verbal grenades toward anything they deem disagreeable, lame, or pointless. Aside from contributing nothing to our conversation, it weakens the intellectual capital of this allegedly revolutionary tool. Why should people bother posting information online when one commenter, emboldened by the freedom of anonymity and feeling empowered to voice his darkest thoughts because it will never be traced to him, can simply make a hateful or racist remark?

The problem is that it doesn’t take any talent or creativity to make one of these remarks. All it takes is a detached aloofness, or a hatred of a certain political figure, and one can immediately take a reductio ad absurdum approach to online discussion. By insulting the author, or suggesting that the article or work is boring, or denigrating a particular race, one reduces the discussion to its most base and troubling elements. No talent is required to do this. And for what? So you can appear more world-weary than the next commenter? So you can hold yourself out as more sophisticated than the other readers, and thus more difficult to impress?

In case it’s not obvious by now, this post is a mea culpa of sorts. For the first nine months of this site’s existence, we committed some of the sins I’ve just listed. As anonymous writers, we felt a perverse freedom to say whatever we pleased without fear of repercussion. With no fear of exposure, we could mock, insult, and generally torment people like Mike Hendricks, Mayor Funkhouser, Jack Cashill, and various users of Ink’s web site. Why did we do this? Well, in some cases criticism was more than warranted. . . . But in most cases there was no point to this. . . . We poked fun at Star columnists — and indeed at the entire publication — because it was easy for us; we were not reporters caught up in the dwindling world of media, and so never had to worry about the actual work it took to produce a newspaper. Far easier it was for us to simply wait for them to do the work, and then sit back and comment anonymously. For a time, this worked marvelously. Our page views reached heights greater than anything we’d ever imagined, and we routinely received emails from people congratulating us on our snarky ascension. But it wasn’t right. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would make our parents beam with pride. Most importantly, it didn’t contribute anything of value to our citywide conversation. Being able to make someone laugh, or merely pointing out the absurdity of a column, doesn’t make you cultural critic. That takes analysis, reasoning, and reflection. For a distressingly long time, we lost sight of that.”
. . .
“Removing ourselves from the self-absorption of Web 2.0 is paramount if we are to recapture a reality based on tangible connections to nature and to each other. This starts with several actions. First, the scourge of web anonymity must end. For whatever reason, the nature of anonymity prompts us to give voice and life to our darkest sides. Second, we must understand that just because we are enabled to say something doesn’t mean we are compelled to say something. There may very well be a rumor swirling about a City Hall politico, but to give life to that rumor is to act irresponsibly. When one writes a post insulting that person or implying untoward things about him, it’s important to remember that people will read it and be affected by it. These are not mere words leaking out into an online ether where people are unaffected by harsh statements — they are mean-spirited and unnecessarily cruel aspersions that will no doubt alter the mood and spirit of the subject.”
. . .
“Jaded, world-weary affectation is a vacuous intellectual pursuit. It challenges nothing, contributes nothing, learns nothing. There is something larger, and that thing is a stroll on the lawn of the Nelson, or a sunset over a comically flat Kansas horizon, or a chat with a friend under the Plaza lights. These are not things to be blogged about or posted as status updates in 140 characters or fewer; they are things to be lived, to be experienced, and to be savored, all with an attitude of appreciation and civility toward your fellow citizen because it’s simply the right thing to do.”

I apologize to McKay for copying so much of what he wrote, but, trust me, the real essay goes deeper and further.

My post about Henry Rizzo appointing James Tindall to be chair of the Jackson County Legislature’s Justice and Law Committee needs to be rewritten.

One Response to “If You’re in the Mood to Think Deeply About the Internet . . .”

  1. Anonymous says:

    And now we have the iPad!

Leave a Reply