June 16, 2007

"web 2.0" paranoia

So over on the Britannica Blog, they're having their own version of the Federal Vision study committee - except it's a stacked discussion panel evaluating that threat to their business model, the so-called Web 2.0, which received such wide publicity after Time's most recent "Person of the Year" cover story.

Of course, as a blogger and a new media fan (though not a lunatic booster like Kevin Kelly), I have various problems with this, most significantly that I think criticism of Wikipedia cannot be generalized to all online communities and open spaces for user-generated content. Wikipedia's problems, I would argue, are not due to anything inherent in the medium, but are rather social, a function of the radically libertarian ethos that most Wikipedians share and which stems ultimately from "Jimbo" Wales himself. Larry Sanger's Citizendium, if it succeeds, will possess the technological advantages of Wikipedia while preserving a proper (not a fetishized, as with the Britannica "Web 2.0 Forum" contributors) respect for the expert.

Seeing how the Britannica contributors seemed determined to deliberately misunderstand new media, I took upon myself to reply in the comments thread to Robert McHenry's article. Soon afterward, they allowed Clay Shirky to respond, and he offered a more elaborate and well-thought-out counterargument. However, since blogs permit continued discussion in a way that earlier textual media did not (a time-delayed conversation), I have been able to continue to clarify my position. Below is a revised (and hyperlinked) version of my thoughts. In a sense, it feels like my SIP, revisited (though, mercifully, not as long):

I find it ironic that the contributors to the Britannica Blog are criticizing Web 2.0 on what is, after all, a blog. So there are exaggerated predictions being made about the educational possibilities of new media. There were exaggerated predictions made about television when it was first invented. Rather than lament the death of print, people who value authoritative sources of information should find a way of monetizing the delivery of content through the Web - for example, micropayments through PayPal, or a similar service. Instead of trying to stem the tide of amateurism, traditional media outlets should ride it for all its worth, turning their most popular writers/content creators into the centers of their own Web communities (as an excellent article in the Atlantic suggests). Then perhaps the Web would be closer to the vision of Ted Nelson or even Vannevar Bush. (Although Bush's vision will never be realized as long as the high priests of learning continue to oppose digitization of academic libraries and open journal access. Perhaps Bush, caught up in the rush of the Manhattan Project, was too idealistic in his faith that scholarly collegiality would trump the pursuit of profit. Britannica is a business, after all.)

The techno-utopianism which Britannica's contributors decry is not a new thing. Once people thought television would issue in a golden age of learning. They were wrong; rather, it has dumbed down public discourse. The Internet, as it is used by many, may do the same thing. But this is not a necessary consequence of the medium, as my senior thesis attempted to demonstrate. Why, when discussing the effects of new media, must we choose between utopianism (as with Marshall McLuhan, echoing fellow Catholic Teilhard de Chardian) and despair (as withMcLuhan (again) or Neil Postman)?

Hypertext is not television. To reference my thesis once again, it has the potential to transcend McLuhan's hot/cool dualism (which never made complete sense, in any case). Rather than throw up our arms in despair at the amateurishness of much of what is available on the Internet, we should strive to create fora, such as the Britannica Blog, which offer something better. There are still ways on the Web for quality to rise to the top.

In contrast to the Britannica contributors, I believe Web 2.0 technologies actually can provide the solution to our informational glut, by embedding the classification systems of Web 1.0, such as Google PageRank, within a context of human evaluation. Think of it this way: when the Web was in its infancy (call it Web 0.5), the Web was small and browsing could still be effective, so portals like Yahoo became popular. When the Web reached saturation, Google became its face for most users, since it was the first search engine to represent people's opinion of Web sites algorithmically and take that data into account when presenting search results. Now, in the Web 2.0 era, the social graph becomes the new defining mechanism for information gathering - friends and acquaintances - real-life communities - can recommend information sources for each other, while at the same time tying into a much vaster online community, a community in which people feel increasingly comfortable associating their actual identity with their online persona. (Scandals like that of Wikipedia's Essjay notwithstanding. I am fairly confident that Wikipedia represents the Web's past, not its future. For counterexamples of truth in Web identity, see the articles on Facebook I just linked, not to mention the growing contingent of RealName Amazon.com reviewers.)

Why is it that those who are skeptical of the grandiose claims some make for the Web find it necessary to counter with grandiose claims of their own - such as that “typographic man is being replaced by flickering man” or that the "radical democracy" of the Internet will usher in a new Reign of Terror.

Certainly I don't think that technological change is having effects that are entirely salutary. It's quite possible that most people are gravitating to the most trivializing uses of the new media (celebrity gossip, etc.). But this is not something that can be laid at the feet of the Web. It just reflects the preexisting bent of our culture. As was said recently in the New York Times Book Review, the spread of free mass media means that we have the ability to be as well-informed as we choose to be - the problem is not lack of access to trustworthy information, but rather lack of discrimination, or lack of taste. The former may be cured by education (which is still, at best, a deeply personal process, involved the transmission of a tradition); the latter may not be curable at all. In any case, the existence of Wikipedia and the like (as was stated by others on the Britannica thread) gives consumers of mass culture (and, more pointedly, citizens of developing nations) the opportunity to become much more enlightened than the masses of, say, the Middle Ages, when books were chained and confined to learned preserves like the Bodleian in Oxford.

The chaining of books, of course, was not done out of cruelty to the masses, but because of scarcity. And scarcity is precisely the condition which modern information technology promises to overcome. Unfortunately for those involved in "old media," scarcity is the condition for profit, and so the ability of the computer to reproduce content indefinitely at virtually no cost profoundly threatens the functioning of copyright as it currently exists. However, from the perspective of the consumer, the elimination of scarcity is a great blessing. Just as the rise of mass production techniques made possible the creation of the industrial-age middle class, giving the masses a level of comfort unequaled in any previous era, so the rise of electronic media in the post-industrial age is making possible equal information access for all.

We live presently in a time of great uncertainty, but also of great opportunity. Rather than lecturing the public about the dangers of their newfound freedom, the Britannica contributors should strive to use the more public platform provided by new media to educate the public about the products of culture which are truly to be valued. Their strongest argument, is, of course, that new media do not easily achieve the serious tone required for appreciation of the most lasting products of Western civilization. However, this is, in part, because the most lasting products of Western civilization were created for an elite, while the common people enjoyed an ephemeral culture now forgotten. Though the medium through which that culture finds expression is changing, for many (perhaps most), its message remains the same. Instead of a few tabloids being read by millions, we now have millions of tabloid-like blogs and MySpaces being read by those same millions.

The exhibitionism/voyeurism dialectic of MySpace, LiveJournal, etc. is disturbing, I admit, but this is only one side of the Web. The same technology of blogging which enables millions to produce things that are of no value, or at least of value only to their closest acquaintances, enables thousands of amateur writers (using the word in its proper sense - those who write for love and not for money) to communicate to a much wider audience that they ever could before (see the comments on Lawrence Lessig's review of Andrew Keen's book for a more extended development of this point). Surely Robert McHenry and Michael Gorman enjoy how Web 2.0 enables them to respond to the arguments of their critics in real-time, addressing a much more visibly involved audience than they could if they had chosen, say, to write an op-ed piece. Unless of course they have already written all the parts of this series in advance and don't plan to respond to the arguments of us amateurs who question their expertise. If that is the case, though, the loss is entirely theirs, as I have been thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to attempt to give a balanced appreciation of new media's pitfalls and promise.

In conclusion, for a really sophisticated critique of new media, I wouldn't look to the Britannica contributors, who don't really seem to understand it, but to EPIC 2015, a fictional history of the next 8 years in digital communications. This video shows that the educational task facing our cultural gatekeepers is now harder than ever - not because new media will inevitably drown out all voices for traditional humanistic values, but because new media enable the curators of the Western tradition to reach more people with their message than could ever be reached before. That is, if they choose to use them.

If we value literacy, we must dare to imagine what literacy looks like in a 21st-century context. Just as in the age when the printing press was invented, there can be no going back. If we embrace political action as the solution to Web 2.0's more bizarre manifestations, we are following in the footsteps of Ned Ludd, and we will inevitably fail, even as his followers did.

We have been given a trust by those who preceded us - the authors of the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, the Reformers, the Founding Fathers, etc. Accordingly, the task before us is to discover how best to communicate that heritage in a new media context. If we confine ourselves solely to the venues of expression favored by an earlier culture, then we have surrendered the field to the denizens of MySpace, et al. whom we believe are cheapening our public discourse. It is true that there will be an inevitable distortion of our message as we strive to communicate in new media. However, all communication distorts one's original intent to some extent, and yet we are still called to speak. Electronic media has given small groups - classically Reformed Christians, for one - the opportunity for much greater visibility than we have had before, since it liberates us from the constraints of geography. How then shall we use this platform? From those to whom must has given, much will be required.

UPDATE: Fortuitously, just after writing this entry, I searched for a favorite Emerson quote, and found a reference work, now available free online, which seems, at least in a small way, to embody the principles I set forth in the last paragraph: E.D. Hirsch's New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. As Hirsch explains in the preface to the dictionary, literacy is not merely decoding text, but rather relies upon "a knowledge of the specific information that is taken for granted in our public discourse." This is the knowledge which is being crowded upon in a realm of 24-hour-a-day news coverage of the latest graphic murder or celebrity scandal. If we can provide a place for this kind of knowledge on the Web, and promote it enough that it rises into the public consciousness, then we will have performed a great public service. However, true reform of our culture must begin at home, with our children, and I am confident that as the decadent mass of secular culture continues to collapse under the weight of its own inconsequentiality (see the work of Jacques Barzun), a renewed Christian culture will rise from the ashes.

Posted by donovan at 1:25 PM | Category: SIP

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