The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 1: Saving the Net From Its Detractors

by on January 31, 2011 · 10 comments

Here’s the first of two essays I’ve recently penned making “The Case for Internet Optimism.” This essay was included in the book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (2011), which was edited by Berin Szoka and Adam Marcus of TechFreedom.  In these essays, I identify two schools of Internet pessimism: (1) “Net Skeptics,” who are pessimistic about the Internet improving the lot of mankind; and (2) “Net Lovers,” who appreciate the benefits the Net brings society but who fear those benefits are disappearing, or that the Net or openness are dying.  (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with these themes since I sketched them out in previous essays here such as, “Are You an Internet Optimist or Pessimist?” and “Two Schools of Internet Pessimism.”) The second essay is here.

This essay focuses on the first variant of Internet pessimism, which is rooted in general skepticism about the supposed benefits of cyberspace, digital technologies, and information abundance. The proponents of this pessimistic view often wax nostalgic about some supposed “good ‘ol days” when life was much better (although they can’t seem to agree when those were). At a minimum, they want us to slow down and think twice about life in the Information Age and how it’s personally affecting each of us.  Occasionally, however, this pessimism borders on neo-Ludditism, with some proponents recommending steps to curtail what they feel is the destructive impact of the Net or digital technologies on culture or the economy.  I identify the leading exponents of this view of Internet pessimism and their major works. I trace their technological pessimism back to Plato but argue that their pessimism is largely unwarranted. Humans are more resilient than pessimists care to admit and we learn how to adapt to technological change and assimilate new tools into our lives over time. Moreover, were we really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty?  Generally speaking, despite the challenges it presents society, information abundance is a better dilemma to be facing than information poverty.  Nonetheless, I argue, we should not underestimate or belittle the disruptive impacts associated with the Information Revolution.  But we need to find ways to better cope with turbulent change in a dynamist fashion instead of attempting to roll back the clock on progress or recapture “the good ‘ol days,” which actually weren’t all that good.

Down below, I have embedded the entire chapter in a Scribd reader, but the essay can also be found on the TechFreedom website for the book as well as on SSRN.  I have also includes two updated tables that appeared in my old “optimists vs. pessimists” essay.  The first lists some of the leading Internet optimists and pessimists and their books. The second table outlines some of the major lines of disagreement between these two camps and I divided those disagreements into (1) Cultural / Social beliefs vs. (2) Economic / Business beliefs.

The Case for Internet Optimism Part 1 – Saving the Net From Its Detractors (Adam Thierer)


Theuthian Technophiles
( “The Internet Optimists”)

Thamusian Technophobes
( “The Internet Pessimists”)



Cultural / Social beliefs

Net is participatory Net is polarizing
Net facilitates personalization (welcome of “Daily Me” that digital tech allows) Net facilitates fragmentation (fear of the “Daily Me”)
“a global village balkanization and fears of “mob rule
heterogeneity / encourages diversity of thought and expression homogeneity / Net leads to close-mindedness
allows self-actualization diminishes personhood
Net a tool of liberation & empowerment Net a tool of frequent misuse & abuse
Net can help educate the masses dumbs down the masses
anonymous communication encourages vibrant debate + whistleblowing (a net good) anonymity debases culture & leads to lack of accountability
welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learning concern about information overload; esp. impact on learning & reading
Economic / Business beliefs
benefits of “Free” (increasing importance of “gift economy”) costs of “Free” (“free” = threat to quality & business models)
mass collaboration is generally more important individual effort is generally more important
embrace of “amateur” creativity superiority of “professionalism
stress importance of “open systems” of production stress importance of “proprietary” models of production
“wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; benefits of crowdsourcing “wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; collective intelligence is oxymoron; + “sharecropper” concern about exploitation of free labor

Theuthian Technophiles
( “The Internet Optimists”)

Thamusian Technophobes
( “The Internet Pessimists”)

· Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (1995)

· Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (1995)

· Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies (1998)

· James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (2004)

· Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006)

· Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You (2006)

· Glenn Reynolds, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths (2006)

· Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006)

· Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008)

· Don Tapscott & Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics:
How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

· Jeff Howe, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (2008)

· Tyler Cowen, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World (2009)

· Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (2009)

· Jeff Jarvis, What Would Google Do? (2009)

· Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010)

· Nick Bilton, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (2010)

· Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (2010)

· Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)

· Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994)

· Clifford Stoll, High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian (1999)

· Cass Sunstein, (2001)

· Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torment of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (2002)

· Todd Oppenheimer, The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology (2003)

· Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture (2007)

· Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul:
Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines‎

· Nick Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008)

· Lee Siegel, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008)

· Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008)

· Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto (2009)

· Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2009)

· John Freeman, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox (2009)

· Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

· Nick Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010)

· William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (2010)

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