The Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed

by on November 11, 2008 · 616 comments

A few months ago, I penned a mega book review about the growing divide between “Internet optimists and pessimists.” I noted that the Internet optimists — people like Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Kevin Kelly, and others — believe that the Internet is generally improving our culture, economy, and society for the better. They believe the Net has empowered and liberated the masses, sparked unparalleled human creativity and communication, provided greater personalization and customization of media content, and created greater diversity of thought and a more deliberative democracy. By contrast, the Internet pessimists — including Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and others — argue that the Internet is destroying popular culture and professional media, calling “truth” and “authority” into question by over-glamorizing amateurism and user-generated content, and that increased personalization is damaging deliberative democracy by leading to homogenization, close-mindedness, and an online echo-chamber. Needless to say, it’s a very heated debate!

I am currently working on a greatly expanded version of my “Net optimists vs. pessimists” essay for a magazine in which I will draw out more of these distinctions and weigh the arguments made by those in both camps. I plan on concluding that article by arguing that the optimists generally have the better of the argument, but that the pessimists make some fair points about the downsides of the Net’s radically disintermediating role on culture and economy.

So, this got me thinking that I needed to come up with some sort of a label for my middle-of-the-road position as well as a statement of my personal beliefs. As far as labels go, I guess I would call myself a “pragmatic optimist” since I generally side with the optimists in most of these debates, but not without some occasional reservations. Specifically, I don’t always subscribe to the Pollyanna-ish, rose-colored view of the world that some optimists seem to adopt. But the outright Chicken Little-like Ludditism of some Internet pessimists is even more over-the-top at times. Anyway, what follows is my “Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed” which better explains my views. (Again, read my old essay first for some context about the relevant battle lines in this intellectual war).

The Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed

I believe that the Internet is reshaping our culture, economy, and society – in most ways for the better, but not without some heartburn along the way.

I believe that the world of information abundance that has dawned is vastly superior to the world of information poverty that we just left. But I also understand that not all information is equal and that that the rise of abundance raises concerns about information overload, objectionable content, and the role of “authority” and “truth.”

I believe the era of traditional Mass Media is coming to an end, but “professional” media institutions and creators continue to play a vital role in the creation, aggregation, and dissemination of news, information, culture, and entertainment. The Internet, however, will force gut-wrenching changes on traditional media institutions and some of the more vital ones (ex: daily local newspapers) will struggle to re-invent themselves, or may wither away entirely.

I believe that “professional” journalism faces very serious challenges from the rise of the Internet and user-generated content, but I also believe that hybrid forms of news-gathering and reporting are offering society exciting new ways to learn about the world around them.

I believe Wikipedia is an amazing example of collection action / intelligence at work, but I also understand it is not without flaws and limitations. I believe Wikipedia is a wonderful complement, but not a complete substitute, for other media and information sources and inputs.

I believe that free and open source software (FOSS) has offered society enormous benefits, but I do not believe that FOSS (or “wiki” models) will replace all proprietary business models or methods. 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.

I believe the Long Tail is a powerful phenomenon, but not “the future of all business.” It is now a more important part of the future of business, but not the entirety of it.

I believe there is a difference between “remix culture” and “ripoff culture.” Remixing (including mash-ups of all sorts) generally enhances and extends culture and creativity. Blatant content piracy, on the other hand, can discourage the creative efforts of the masses. Likewise, hacking, circumvention, and reverse-engineering all play an important and legitimate role in our new digital economy, but one need not accept the legitimacy of those activities when conducted for nefarious purposes (think identity theft or chip modding to facilitate video game piracy.)

I believe that the Internet has empowered the masses and created a world of “pro-sumers” that gives every man, woman, and child a soapbox on which to speak to the world. But that does not mean that all of them will have something interesting to say, and I won’t praise user-generated content as a good in and of itself. It’s quality, not volume, that counts.

I believe that the Internet’s empowering nature has changed much about society and culture, but I do not believe in the romanticism espoused by some about how the Net “remaking man” or changing human nature in a fundamental way. The Internet does not liberate us from all earthly constraints and it cannot magically solve all of humanity’s problems.

I believe that the Internet is reinvigorating deliberative democracy and giving us increased exposure to a breathtaking diversity of views that were previously inaccessible, at least for most of us. On the other hand, I understand that some Netizens will often seek out only those views that reinforce their pre-existing biases.

I believe in the power of freedom of speech and expression, and appreciate that the Internet and the rise of user-generated content has given us a world of unprecedented information and cultural riches. I also understand, however, that unrestricted freedom of speech and expression permits an increase in the prevalence of objectionable, even harmful, speech and content. On net, however, (excuse the pun) the Internet is the most important medium of human communication and expression that the world has ever known.

In sum, I believe there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the Internet and its role in shaping our lives, culture, economy, and society. But that doesn’t mean it will be all roses going forward.

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