In Defense of Internet Triumphalism

by on August 19, 2008 · 7 comments

Tom Lee critiques professional gossip-turned-professional-navel-gazer Emily Gould, who has a new article about the supposed shallowness of Shirky style Internet triumphalism:

Gould thinks Shirky is a callow idealist, but he’s not. He’s just noting the incredible bounty that technology can afford us while politely declining to complain about the places where it falls short.

Not only is Gould preoccupied with the latter, she’s blind to the former. And hey, I can relate. Digital technology has its own Benjaminian aura, you know — excitement born of novelty, and exclusivity, and revolutionary rhetoric. Once that novelty wears off, though, things can start to look kind of drab. I mean, it’s exciting that the world has collaboratively built an encyclopedia! But it is an encyclopedia. And the idea of an encyclopedia — a comprehensive reference document written without passion or position — is actually kind of boring. The same holds for social communication and our lofty rhetoric about the triumph of a world where information can flow freely. Once you’re done patting yourself on the back you need to start paying attention to what people are actually saying. And that’s hard. Sometimes it’s even boring.

It’s depressing when you realize how much of your excitement about a thing was tied up in its aura; to find out that superficial considerations formed the basis of your enthusiasm. I struggle with this myself: I’m overcome with contempt at every useless, vowel-less internet startup I see, its founders desperate to think of themselves as brilliant revolutionaries despite no one — least of all them — actually caring a whit about what they say they’re trying to do. But that contempt is motivated in no small part by feeling the exact same ignoble impulse.

I think this is basically right, but I’d make a somewhat stronger case. It’s certainly true that the most superficial aspects of the Internet get a lot of press, but I think it’s important not to let the existence of such froth obscure the enormous flow of real, non-superficial value that the Internet revolution is producing. The non-frothy parts of the Internet seem boring precisely because they’ve become so profoundly important to our society that we’ve started taking them for granted.

Now, I’m admittedly biased. I currently derive much of my income writing on the Internet. I wouldn’t have gotten my two previous jobs without the Internet. And before that I worked my way through college as a web programmer. I also met my fiancée and several of my closest friends via the Internet. And in other cases, the Internet has enabled me to keep in better touch with “real life” friends after I moved out of town. There’s nothing superficial about any of this, and I’m having trouble seeing a downside.

So I find hand-wringing about the Internet’s deficiencies rather silly. The Internet has flaws, just like any other part of human society, but it’s also changing the world in a variety of profound and almost entirely positive ways. Books like Here Comes Everybody identifies some of those ways and explains why they’re important. I’m glad he doesn’t dwell on the Internet’s shortcomings because, frankly, they’re nowhere near as numerous or important as its benefits.

To illustrate the Internet’s supposed disadvantages, Gould offers the following thought experiment:

Here’s something to try as (trust me!) a pointless experiment: cease to log in to your instant messenger for a week. You’ll find out quickly that for some of the “buddies” on your buddy list, you immediately cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist. Or go one step further: delete your profile from Facebook and stop blogging. Stop reading blogs. Stop attending social events you find out about online. See how your world shrinks, and if you’re brave, see if you can stick with your foray into social-media abstention until you start to see your world opening back up again–maybe in different ways.

As near as I can tell, the idea here is supposed to be that you have a class of “real” friends who you have been neglecting because you’ve been spending too much time virtually interacting with your Internet “friends.” Since the former are on the Internet, they’re not real, and so it should alarm us that they’re taking time away from our time with real-life friends. This is little more than crude question-begging. If we assume that all online relationships are as trite and superficial as a Facebook superpoke, then we might have reason to worry. But there’s no reason to think that’s the case.

And as a former New York media blogger, of all people, should understand, the line between the Internet and real life is never clear-cut. Many Internet friends become real-life friends and vice versa. Online interactions strengthen real-life friendships, just as meeting an Internet friend for the first time can strengthen the online relationship. So there’s nothing alarming about the fact that more people are spending more time cultivating Internet friendships.

Internet triumphalism overreached during its height in the late 1990s, but not as much as people think. The fact that many of the businesses failed is not evidence that the underlying technology was any less important than the Internet’s boosters claim. Internet triumphalism is back, but this time around I don’t think it over-reaches much at all. The Internet really is bringing about profound changes in the shape of human societies, and there really are big changes still to come. Gould happens to have worked in one of the most superficial and cynical corners of the Web, so it’s not too surprising that she’s jaded, but we should let her cynicism overshadow the tremendous progress the rest of us are enjoying.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The current issue of Technology Review is quite though-provoking. As one of the letters to the editor said: “Though change is often unsettling, it's the very essence of technical progress.” Not that all change is good, mind you.

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