What is the Internet?, Part 1

Over at The Awl, Maria Bustillos struggles to define and defend “the internet” in her review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here:

“If the Internet were a world, Morozov blithely ignores whole continents, whole oceans, to make his criticisms of certain aspects of one small province—Silicon Valley—and then extrapolate from them to encompass the rest.”

This is a telling metaphor: it shows just how vaporous and indistinct the idea of a single, coherent “internet” really is, if the best description anyone can formulate is that it’s like a bunch of continents, among which Silicon Valley (itself hardly well-defined) is a province. However, the metaphor does prove the existence of “Internet-centrism”; what kind of person assigns the statehood and governmental responsibilities associated with a “province” to a bunch of California VCs and startups? But I do think that this is what many advocates of relentless technological “progress” want: their own country, their own rules, and the right to move “forward” without regard for general welfare or dissent.

A person living in the increasingly stratified, inequality-ravaged West should take note. The more one thinks about Bustillos’ (likely offhand) metaphor, the scarier it is: a world run not by democratic laws and the humane inefficiencies of the governments that make them, but by titans of industry focused not on public welfare or equality but on profits, masked as “efficiency” borne out of technological innovation. And their vehicle is “the internet,” spoken of in hushed terms as if it were an immutable force equivalent to “gravity,” when it is actually not even a physical space and not even remotely objective, with its primary inputs often coming from predominantly male demographics (Reddit, Wikipedia) or proprietary algorithms (Google).

Jaron Lanier has recently commented on the shortcomings of Internet-centrism (and for some reason earning a rebuke from like-minded Morozov), chiding it for decontextualizing information and acting as if truth can be dispensed from anonymous masses:

“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.”

I touched upon some similar points in my piece about the inherent non-objectivity (subjectivity?) of “the internet,” and the various contingencies that make it what it is. I’ll just add that I find it unsurprising that both Silicon Valley and “the internet” would do little to promote the integrity of books, music, and creative arts, as well as the people who create them. For every success story of Kickstarter star, there’s someone who is struggling because creative work is now assigned value via cultural capital and “likes” or “+1s,” rather than actual money or employment. But, hey, it’s all in the name of “open access” and “openness,” so it must represent real “progress” for mankind, no? What can one do when “the internet,” despite not being a real agent/actor, is relentlessly changing everything, as they say?

Lanier talks about the help that the middle-class needs to maintain its status:

“I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.”

These types of gatekeepers, protections, and institutions are exactly what many of the purveyors of technological “progress” want to destroy. Morozov himself has belabored this point using comparisons such as Uber (the quintessence of upper-crust Silicon Valley muscle eroding a purposefully inefficient public service in the name of “efficiency”) and taxis, and one can arguably see it even in seemingly populist drives like John McCain’s attempt to dismantle the bundled cable television package model (which actually saves money for consumers and gives them more choices without being priced out of the market), but I think an even better example is education.

Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker analysis of the effect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on higher education is balanced, with a nuanced look at how, on the one hand, online learning could solve classroom space issues and propagate knowledge and, on the other, shrink the academic job market and centralize all academic thought and opinion. I’ll take a look at this later, when I write part two.

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