Grouping Recent Net Books: Internet Optimists vs. Pessimists

by on September 6, 2008 · 47 comments

[Note: I updated this discussion and chart in a subsequent essay. See: "Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society."]

A number of very interesting books have been released over the past year or two which debate how the Internet is reshaping our culture and the economy. I’ve reviewed a couple of them here but I have been waiting to compile a sort of mega-book review once I found a sensible way to conceptually group them together. I’m not going to have time to cover each of them here in the detail they deserve, but I think I have at least found a sensible way to categorize them. For lack of better descriptors, I’ve divided these books and thinkers into two camps: “Internet optimists” versus “Internet Pessimists.” Here’s a list of some of the individuals and books (or other articles and blogs) that I believe epitomize these two camps of thinking:

Adherents & Their Books / Writings

Internet Optimists

Internet Pessimists

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur

Chris Anderson, The Long Tail and “Free!”

Lee Siegel, Against the Machine

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Nick Carr, The Big Switch

Cass Sunstein, Infotopia

Cass Sunstein, Republic.com

Don Tapscott, Wikinomics

Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited

Kevin Kelly & Wired mag in general

Alex Iskold, “The Danger of Free

Mike Masnick & TechDirt blog

Mark Cuban

And here’s a rough sketch of the major beliefs or key themes that separate these two schools of thinking about the impact of the Internet on our culture and economy:

Beliefs / Themes

Internet Optimists

Internet Pessimists

Culture / Social

Net is Participatory

Net is Polarizing

Net yields Personalization

Net yields Fragmentation

a “Global village

Balkanization

Heterogeneity / Diversity of Thought

Homogeneity / Close-mindedness

Net breeds pro-democratic tendencies

Net breeds anti-democratic tendencies

Tool of liberation & empowerment

Tool of frequent misuse & abuse

Economics / Business

Benefits of “free” (“Free” = future of media / business)

Costs of “free” (“Free” = end of media / business)

Increasing importance of “Gift economy

Continuing importance of property rights, profits, firms

“Wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; power of collective intelligence

“Wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; errors of collective intelligence

Mass collaboration

Individual effort

So, what to make of this intellectual war? Who’s got the story right?


Although it will be easy for many in the blogosphere to side with the Internet optimists — and I would count myself as generally being in the optimist camp — I think the Net pessimists make many fair points about the disruptive nature of the Internet and how it forcing individuals and industries to completely reconsider the way they live their lives or organize their business affairs. Many Net optimists have a tendency to paint an excessively rosy picture of the transformative nature of the Net. In the extreme, the optimists seem to imply that the Net is somehow remaking man, altering human nature, and changing the economy only for the better. Among the Net optimists, there’s often a lot of romanticized talk of collective action / intelligence overcoming all barriers to knowledge or progress, and so on. (Sometimes I am guilty of a bit of that myself in my writing here). Net optimists need to be careful about overstating their case, especially on the economic front, and we would be wise to read the work of the Net pessimists with that criticism in mind.

The problem with the Internet pessimists, however, is that their skepticism often borders on Chicken Little-ism or outright Ludditism. I thought Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur was about as over-the-top as things could get in this regard. (See my 2-part book review here and here), but then I worked my way through Lee Siegel’s tedious screed, Against the Machine. It made Keen seem downright reasonable and cheery by comparison! Keen and Siegel seem to be in heated competition for the title “High Prophet of Internet Doom,” but Siegel is currently a nose ahead in that race.

Nick Carr is probably the most reasonable and respected of the Net skeptics. He is an enormously gifted writer and I always enjoy reading his books, articles, and blog entries, even when I disagree with him. In The Big Switch, he makes many valid points about the downsides of the gut-wrenching changes that the Net is bringing about. Similarly, in his provocative recent Atlantic article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, he wonders how the Net is negatively affecting our minds and attention spans. Carr also argues that the Internet economy is increasingly built on a “sharecropper” model that essentially exploits the free labor of the multitudes to make just a handful of major Net operators rich. He makes some interesting points but, ultimately, I think he overstates the problem. Most of us feel we get a lot back as part of this value exchange. Sure, Google, Facebook, and a lot of other Net middlemen are getting big and rich based on all the user-generated content flowing over their sites and systems, but we extract enormous benefits from the existence of those (mostly free and constantly improving) platforms and services.

Nonetheless, the Net pessimists (especially Carr) raise some very legitimate questions about the limitations of the “free culture” mindset. They are on stronger ground when the highlight the problems associated with online piracy, however, than when they are critiquing Wikipedia and the occasional limitations or errors of collaborative endeavors like it. But Wikipedia in particular seems to be an obsession for many of the Net pessimists, especially Carr and Keen.

It is also true, however, that Net optimists like Tapscott and Benkler sometimes make too much out of “wiki” / collective intelligence models, seemingly implying that proprietary business models, private firms, and potentially capitalism itself are passé notions. I disagree. While I think wiki / collective intelligence approaches have their place and play a vitally important role in our new digital economy, the old ways of doing things are still alive and well and producing some wonderful results. For example, “The Dark Knight” wasn’t the product of spontaneous collective action, and I still don’t see any truly compelling open source video games to compete with the likes of “Madden 2009” or “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.” I think some of the Net optimists get a bit carried away at times when the place too much faith in the “Wikipedia-ization” of everything, or the idea that the Long Tail is somehow “The Future of Business,” as the subtitle of Chris Anderson’s book suggest. I think that goes much too far. On the other hand, I am huge fan of Wiki & Long Tail models and, like most others, understand their limitations. Those models will play an increasingly important role in the Net economy moving forward whether the Net pessimists like it or not. Bottom line: each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they will continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.

Perhaps when I have more time I will return to this discussion and fill it out more with some passages and quotes from each book. I just don’t have the time right now but I will try to do so at some point in the future. Anyway, these are important books that deserve your attention if you are following the debate over the impact the Net is having — for better or worse — on our culture and economy.

  • http://www.blurringborders.com kdonovan11

    Great post, Adam. I had been hoping to do something similar, if only to get my thoughts straight.

    As for Infotopia, though, I'm not sure if I'd place that in the optimist camp; Sunstein is much more nuanced and aware of the limitations of the net (as his position as a pessimist w/ Republic.com shows).

    Also, consider adding David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous and JZ's Future of the Internet (though I'm not sure FotI fits neatly into the dichotomy.)

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

    I think I'd add Zittrain, Lessig, and Wu to the list.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Zittrain's recent book is probably the most important tech policy book of the year, but (as you note) it doesn't fit neatly into this dichotomy so that's why you don't see it there. I have reviewed that book here in a series of ongoing installments:

    http://techliberation.com/2008/03/23/review-of-
    http://techliberation.com/2008/03/30/apple-open
    http://techliberation.com/2008/04/12/another-pr

    Regarding Sunstein's latest book, Infotopia, I think it's interesting that Cass has begun pushing back against his own position as outlined in Republic.com. He's certainly still in the pessimist camp on some things, but he seems to have abandoned some of the gloom-and-doomism of Republic.com. My old 2001 review of that book can be found here:

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv24n3/in

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

    Second Weinberger.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Indeed! The other nice thing is that you can reply directly to a comment, thus creating a discussion thread like this one…

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Well, I see it more as a continuum, rather than a clear bright line between optimists and pessimists. But there isn't any reason that positive and negatives can't be happening at the same time.

    I would definitely add John Robb's book or someone who is thinking about how the internet and open source production is re-shaping War, as well as someone like Bill Mitchell or Paul Virilio who would give some perspective as to how the internet is transforming Architecture and Urbanism.

    I think you've made two interesting informational exclusions by not discussing:

    1. those like Zittrain, who although more an optimist, sees both pluses and minuses. How about a category for balanced/realist?

    2. Other disciplines like Architecture, Art, or War, which are all being transformed also.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    The “Economics/Business” is not as black and white from the optimistic/pessimistic viewpoints.

    Mass collaboration versus Individual Effort- There is no doubt that the internet has fostered mass collaboration efforts such as Wikipedia. But it has also fostered the grow of many individual economic efforts. Everyone can now have an internet store front that is accessible to the entire world. Ebay is an example of how individuals can sell products world wide. Currently, I am attempting to get replacement parts for a Kayak. Without the internet the company offering the replacement parts would be very hard to find. The internet from the optimistic viewpoint is not simply about mass collaboration but the ability to reach anyone in the world. And that includes individual efforts to sell products and services.

    Gift economy versus property rights- I am not sure of the origin of this one, but it appears to be a follow-up to “Mass collaboration versus Individual Effort”. One can assume that with mass collaboration that this can be viewed as a gift economy since those participating the mass collaboration are donating their time/money/labor.

    From the optimistic/pessimistic viewpoint, I think this category misses the dynamics of what is happening. From the optimistic viewpoint, The Gift Economy column should be labeled “Adaptive Technology”. The Adaptive Technology viewpoint (of which Mike Masnick at TechDirt is a major proponent) holds that if a new technology threatens your income stream, you need to adapt and change your business model. The pessimistic side currently labeled “property rights” should be labeled “Old School”. The Old School model holds; if there is a technological threat to your business model, the solution is to change the law to frustrate the implementation of any technology that threatens your income stream. The obvious example of this trend was the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

    If one upholds the concept of the free market, the optimists recognize that those selling products and services must adapt to the internet as a new technological opportunity. The pessimists on the other hand don't want real competition, instead they seek to frustrate the introduction of new technologies through the passage of self-serving laws to protect their interests, Additionally these laws are also used to create “toll booths” to exact unearned revenue. (corporate welfare).

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    I just realized that I misspelled Lee Siegel's name in a few spots in this post. I apologize about that and corrected the entry.

  • http://antonyloewenstein.com Antony Loewenstein

    This is a very interesting argument, but alas, really only applies to the West.

    As a Sydney-based journalist and author of the recently released book, The Blogging Revolution (http://www.bloggingrevolution.com/), about the web in repressive regimes such as Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China, the benefits of the net are unquestionable (something I explain more here: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25…).

    Shouldn't we be trying to better understand the web from a global perspective, rather than just focusing on the Western world?

  • http://www.networkcultures.org/geert Geert Lovink

    I agree with the last comment. Isn't strange that there are only US American Internet pessimists and optimists. Do you really think that this debate only happens in the USA? Latest since the mid 1990s the Internet debate has gone global. It is time for Adam to catch up. And with this I do not only mean Europe, or the West in general.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Mr. Loewenstein & Mr. Lovink:

    I appreciate your comments and would be happy to “catch up” with whatever other books you care to suggest right after I get through the stack of 20 sitting on my desk right now. Yes, most of them are written by American authors, but that's been more than enough to keep me busy lately. But, again, I am happy to try to work others into the mix when I expand this essay into a magazine article as I am currently attempting to do.

    That being said, I think many of the themes and perspectives found in these books are universally applicable. The intellectual struggle we see going on in these books is hardly unique to the U.S. Second, to the extent there are differences, I am always careful about commenting on foreign debates and policy issues precisely because the situation on the ground in some countries and continents IS different in that there might be nuanced cultural or economic considerations that I am unaware of. Stated differently, I don't want to look like the proverbial “arrogant American” who is telling the rest of the planet what he thinks of their policies or debates. At least not without doing my homework first !

    Again, I appreciate your input and call for the inclusion of foreign perspectives, and I am eager to see your recommended reading lists.

    [Note: I originally had "The Rise of the Network Society" by Manuel Castells (a Spanish writer) on the list but took it off because I had not read it since 2000. I might include it in the next edition of this essay after I have had a chance to go back through it again).

  • Clay Shirky

    Adam,

    Excellent post — this sort of context is a great addition to the debate.

    Speaking for myself, as both a you- and self-labeled optimist, I'd like to make two observations.

    First, you ascribe to the pessimists the view that the internet is “… forcing individuals and industries to completely reconsider the way they live their lives or organize their business affairs.” You say that like it's a bad thing.

    This sort of re-consideration in light of new capabilities, as wrenching as such a thing can be, has nevertheless historically led to general social improvement (cf. the printing press or steam power). If the generation being disrupted were allowed veto power over novelty, nothing would ever undergo radical change. The fact that there is such a re-consideration, and that it is both widespread and mandatory, is the engine of the positive change that many of the optimists, including me, believe internet adoption will produce.

    Second, you are right in noting the obsession with Wikipedia amongst the pessimists. I have a theory as to why that is.

    In the 1980s and 1990s, evidence for the viability of open collaboration was mainly confined to free software (later labeled open source.) The main argument against free/open source software was “that can't work”, but that argument began to fail with the success of Apache and Linux, and IBM's adoption of same.

    At that point (ca. 1998) another excuse was needed, and it was: “Software is special.” This argument had several facets: Code is uniquely suited to distributed collaboration, programmers are native to the internet, learning to code creates special social norms, and so on.

    This excuse held until about 2004, and the growing general awareness of Wikipedia.

    This is why Wikipedia is the object of such fascination and horror — none of the excuses for ignoring open source software as a special case apply. If Wikipedia works — which is to say if there is a general-purpose tool that can be used to create a public good of enormous, worldwide value, created by unpaid contributors *who judge their contributions and the results to be worthwhile* (Carr's concern, in particular) — then nothing is going to hold back the general population from embracing those tools.

    And if society tries using these tools, then each pessimist gets treated to their own special vision of the coming horror. Society will engage in exactly the re-consideration you've identified, no matter which experts lose their jobs (Keen), no matter how much it configures the existing social landscape (Siegel, in a reading that waves away the self-absorbtion), and that operates via economics of voluntary association rather than surplus labor value (Carr.)

  • Pingback: A lire ailleurs, du 19 décembre 2008 au 9 janvier 2009 | traffic-internet.net

  • Pingback: The Most Important Tech Policy Books of 2008 | The Technology Liberation Front

  • http://stem-cell-transplant.blogspot.com Stem cell transplant

    Stem cells in an organism of the adult person are developed by a bone brain. It is their basic source, but it is far not the unique. Also stem cells are found out and in a fatty fabric, a skin, muscles, a liver, lungs, an eye retina, practically in all bodies and organism fabrics. They provide restoration of the damaged sites of bodies and fabrics.

  • http://www.sousvetement.org Sous vetement

    Really like the beliefs themes chart Optimist vs Pessimists.
    There is a lot of good books there to. Reading outside internet is possible!

  • http://addurl.flashh.in Deepak

    you are right in noting the obsession with Wikipedia amongst the pessimists.

  • http://www.learn2holdem.com/poker-room-reviews/cake-poker-room-review.htm cakepoker

    Absolutely. The web is offering a truly global information medium and if there are still authoritarian regimes around, the web will help eradicate them. Like with all new discoveries since prehistory, the optimists have always won, i.e. the technology has become a part of life for the better. The web is certainly not a threat like global warming is.

  • http://www.micrositez.co.uk seo

    i think the qualifies me as internet lumpen proleterait…

  • http://www.armyshop24.eu/Jacken/Windbreaker:::1_10.html surplus windbreaker

    a very good article. Like the “optimist-pesimist”-table. I read some of your blog-articles today. This is the second I really like! Thanks for nice reading stuff this evening! :o)

  • http://www.seopositive.com SEO Services uk

    I would add Wu to the list too.

  • Pingback: Blog of Change » My selection of links for April 8th through April 9th

  • Pingback: Unity Behind Diversity » The Illusion That “Choice” Means That There’s Nothing To Fear From Code » Blaise Alleyne

  • http://www.nimtree.com google optimisation

    excellent article

  • http://productreviewsby.me/ muffin9129

    Interesting post, and you put it really well, unbiased and informative. I thought the Internet was making us all stupid… :) I think that there are some obvious negatives that need to be addressed including safety, identification, fraud, copyrights, and novel research, etc., but overall I think this revolution does make our lives easier.

  • http://www.24-7bookie.com/ Pat_R

    Good point muffin, I agree. I think that we need to get control over the Internet before it is too late. However, I am on the fence, because I do not like anyone filtering what I see online. For example, look at Iran, and how they are not allowed to go online. I think that is wrong,s o I do not know what to do??

  • http://www.nidelab.com/ Website Designing in Delhi

    Good point I Can't agree more ….. and its not if those people dnt want things to change ….

  • http://www.nidelab.com/ Website Designing in Delhi

    Good point I Can't agree more ….. and its not if those people dnt want things to change ….

  • Pingback: The Technology Liberation Front Turns 5 Today!

  • Pingback: Can Humans Cope with Information Overload? Tyler Cowen & John Freeman Join the Debate

  • Pingback: The Internet has not transformed civic engagement… yet | UpOff.com

  • Pingback: The Internet has not transformed civic engagement… yet | Supossably

  • Pingback: The Internet has not transformed civic engagement… yet

  • Pingback: Shared Items: 1 September 2009

  • Pingback: Ars Technica | The Internet has not transformed civic engagement… yet | Your Gadget Review

  • Pingback: The Internet has not transformed civic engagement… yet : My Mash Web

  • Pingback: review: A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron — Technology Liberation Front

  • uggworld

    do you like ugg boots?I wish you like

  • uggworld

    do you like ugg boots?I wish you like

  • Pingback: review of Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World As We Know It — Technology Liberation Front

  • Pingback: The Digital Decade’s Definitive Reading List: Internet & Info-Tech Policy Books of the 2000’s — Technology Liberation Front

  • Pingback: Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society — Technology Liberation Front

  • Pingback: Great Pessimist Satire on the Post-Print World

  • Pingback: Internet optimists vs pessimists « Izleth

  • Pingback: Internet: Optymiści vs Pesymiści « Komunikowanie – Nowe Media – Internet

  • Pingback: ‘The New Digital Age’: Promise and Peril Ahead for the Global Internet | TIME.com

  • Pingback: ACROSS THE FADER – BIZ - The Internet Doesn’t Hurt People — People Do: ‘The New Digital Age’

Previous post:

Next post: