Thursday, March 1, 2012

Us, the Web Kids

A few days ago, Mr. Hulcher -- an old acquaintance with whom I have shared many steamy late night conversations (all most assuredly heterosexual) over the years -- brought to my attention a manifesto of sorts titled "We, the Web Kids."

Composed by one Piotr Czerski, it hails the web-nurtured youth of the modern age as something like a generation of real-world Newtypes and the Internet itself as an epochal engine of transformation that's changing society and humanity in a wholly and unquestionably positive way.

It's a bold statement -- and like most bold statements, it comes from a proclaimer who probably didn't think things completely through. As I am (1) of the opinion the the truth and/or essence of any matter lies between pairs of contraries (2) sometimes accused of being some kind of joyless, elitist Luddite, I feel compelled to offer a contrarian's two cents on Mr. Czerski's credo.

What Mr. Hulcher first brought to my attention was this excerpt from the piece:

To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.

This is not the first time I've seen this thought expressed (nor will it be the last), and it never fails to raise a lump in my throat.

My stock response to this is that there's a tremendous gap between possessing access to knowledge and possessing knowledge. What worries me is the thought that people are becoming unable to differentiate between the two, and more inclined to feel that the latter is as good as the former. There's a proportionately wide distance between understanding something and getting the gist of it, which is usually all you acquire from punching a question into Google or skimming a Wikipedia page.

Yes, yes -- Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information and I use it as a reference all the time. Not everyone can afford of stack of hardcover encyclopedias. Not all of us are fortunate to have a well-funded and maintained library in the vicinity of our residences. But the suggestion that being able to look something up on Wikipedia is just as good as learning something is absurd. Introspection will tell us that most of the time, we don't retain what we read when we browse Wikipedia, hopping from article from article at arbitrary points.

Knowledge (and the process of acquiring and internalizing it) changes people, and I would like to think -- perhaps naively -- that it's usually for the better.

I recently read a John Muir quote printed on a woman's tote bag: When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.

Naturally, the knowledge corresponds to the physical facts. You don't have to be a tech devout to perceive that there's no Wikipedia article that's not connected to another. Deepening and refining your understanding of one aspect of existence tends to affect your perspective on the rest of the world's contents, changing how you think and act (again, I would hope for the better) during the intervals between glances at your computer monitor or smartphone.

If we permit ourselves to internalize and actually possess only generalized notecard versions of the facts and place all the rest into some external knowledge vat, we're cheating ourselves, denying ourselves the opportunity to let all of this information actually affect us -- to ferment from data into knowledge and make us a smarter and better people. I'm reminded of those middle-aged men who spend tens of thousands of dollars on exercise equipment and show off their personal gyms to visitors, but then only use the free weights or treadmill once every week or two -- or of those college classmates I knew who'd download 100 gigs of music on Soulseek and Limewire and then only really listen to 5% of it. Both parties might as well have not even bothered. (I have dozens of these metaphors. How about a person who spends all his time in the library and only ever reads the the dust jackets?)

Long story short: I would admit the Internet is a promethean milestone in the development of humanity if it made more people more knowledgeable rather than more capable of accessing tidbits of information on the fly, parroting them, and shortly forgetting about them.

As it stands, my overall inclination is to suspect that the Internet is better at giving people fewer reasons to learn anything than actually helping to make them more intelligent. Referencing something gets you a quick answer; learning something brings you understanding. One is quick, the other is slow. When you don't take the time to learn, you're not actually learning -- says the joyless elitist Luddite.

[W]e feel that culture is becoming simultaneously global and individual. This is why we need free access to it.

This does not mean that we demand that all products of culture be available to us without charge, although when we create something, we usually just give it back for circulation. We understand that, despite the increasing accessibility of technologies which make the quality of movie or sound files so far reserved for professionals available to everyone, creativity requires effort and investment. We are prepared to pay, but the giant commission that distributors ask for seems to us to be obviously overestimated. Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.

Although Mr. Czerski does not repeat the DigiMao "information wants to be free" chorus word for word, he arrives just short of it and ignores the fact (like most web cenobites) that not all information is equal. Given his jab toward journalism at the end of the piece, let's focus on that for a moment.

We already know that many of our most venerated newspapers as having trouble adapting to the 21st century because, thanks to the web, people don't want to pay for news anymore. They're as unwilling to pay for print subscriptions as digital pay-per-view articles. We might attribute this behavior to (1) the fact that free access has become the standard (2) bloggers and news aggregators have a tendency to comment on paraphrased versions of the newspapers' stories, essentially giving the product away for free. The newspapers' web revenue dries up because the leeched traffic makes their pages less valuable to advertisers. (That's one prevailing of the story in a nutshell; doubtless you wish to correct me.)

As someone shooting his thoughts at you from his own "web-log," I sure can't say I'm opposed to blogging. And since some of you are probably arriving here from the Twitter, you know I can't say I wholly despise microblogging. Nor can I say that social media, under the right circumstances, doesn't provide a valuable service that traditional journalism has a hard time matching; particularly in spontaneous, chaotic scenarios that erupt in places where journalists are not present. For instance, we would probably know next to nothing about the NYPD's abuses during the Occupy Wall Street crackdown if it weren't for web-savvy activists at Liberty Park; before that, most of the information we got from the Tehran and Tahrir Square protests came from youngsters armed with mobile phones and Twitter accounts.

Some feel that this demonstrates that traditional newspaper-style journalism is outmoded and not long for this world. Soon it will be replaced largely by the bloggers and twitterati, and we will lose nothing in the exchange except for the pesky notion that information on current events should come with a price tag.

Blogging and tweeting work best as a supplement to traditional reporting. They are no replacement for investigative journalism -- the kind where a reporter goes beyond the event itself and presents why it's happening, what precisely is happening (because there is more than one angle to any event, and the version that's reported immediately as it happens is often inaccurate), and to place in in the context of other events, both local and global, short term and long term. This is not as easy a thing as it sounds.

Journalistic organizations (or "corporations," to use the pejorative) complain about the Internet eating all of their money because they run a business with a high overhead. Stuff that's not already in the external information vat takes time and resources to gather, check, correlate, and present. Thus, newspapers -- especially those with reporters and bureaus spread across the globe -- might take it personally when the public decides they don't want to pay for news.

Bloggers, tweeters, and news aggregators are very good at commenting on and disseminating information that's already in the vat, but most of the time they're not contributing anything new. Even in our shiny happy brave new wired world, traditional investigative journalists are still the ones doing the most arduous work toward putting breaking information and extensively-researched analyses of current events into the vat.

I recently read a great piece in The New Yorker about Obama's transformation from post-partisan idealist to cynical Washington pragmatist over the last three years, which the reporter (Ryan Lizza) constructs from internal White House memos and details from the Obama administration timeline. This is very good, very useful information about our elected head of state that does much to contextualize his behavior in office. A part time blogger would not have been able to write this. He wouldn't have the time, the resources, nor the access. It was likely the only thing Mr. Lizza worked on for at least a month. (In the for-profit blogosphere, going a month without updating is suicidal.)

Contributing new and meaty information to the external knowledge vat requires time and toil of a degree that somebody unable to dedicate the better part of his waking life to said information's acquisition would be unable to put forth. Journalists, like the rest of us, require food and housing; and serious investigative reporting (unlike blogging) is not the sort of thing one can do well when he has a day job and can only do his research and writing on evenings and weekends.

When the public decides that it deserves to have the fruits of a professional journalist's labor for free, what is a professional journalist to do?

Hey! Why doesn't he start a blog, slap up some Google ads, and sell coffee mugs and T-shirts?

If he's Perez Hilton, that might work. But if he's the sort of reporter interested in filing long, dry, information-rich reports on complicated, unglamorous things and old and unphotogenic policymakers whose names the public probably doesn't recognize, he's probably not going to have much luck breaking even. (Especially when he's not able to update every other day.)

Why don't we tell him to stop whining and fund his work via Kickstarter?

Between journalists, which do you think would be more likely to get enough cash to get his project off the ground: the one who wants to write an investigative profile of video game designer Tim Schafer or the one who wants to write an investigative profile of Hussein Tantawi (Egypt's "interim" head of state)? Yes, we both know which probably contributes more toward ensuring a well-informed voting public (which is absolutely necessary if the citizens of continent-spanning economic and military powerhouse with a plethora of international interests and commitments are being trusted to choose their own statesmen), but why do I get the feeling that most netizens would throw their five bucks toward the former and ignore the latter?

History will probably show that the decline of investigative journalism coincided with a sharp uptick in the number of YTP vids and dissertations about silly video games. I wonder if this constitutes Mr. Czerki's "we take for free but we give something back" web kid ethos? Sure -- we'll drive you and your medium out of business by getting your contributed information elsewhere for free (while telling you it's your fault); and in return, we add to the vat 843,316,629 pointless Rage Comics and nine-minute monologues about the post-broadcast editing of Derpy Hooves's My Little Pony debut and what it means for civilization. To me it seems this doesn't quite constitute a balanced account, but remember that this opinion comes from a joyless elitist Luddite. Don't take it to heart.

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities....

Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy.

Tell me what democracy looks like!

Actually, it often doesn't look so good.

While we regard ancient Athens as the birthplace of Western democracy, it's worth remembering that the city's most accomplished thinkers thought democracy was a really bad idea.

I often hear people claim that the Internet is democracy incarnate, and civilization could/should/will evolve into a libertarian direct democracy as it integrates the Internet more deeply into its nervous system. This, they say, is a thing to be greatly desired.

I think that the idea that a democracy is the best society -- and the more direct the democracy, the better -- is an idea in need of reexamination.

In its purest form, the democratic principle is one whose logical endpoint can be summed up as:

What is most popular is what is best.

By the standards of democracy, the best food is McDonald's, the most worthwhile human pursuit is watching television, and World of Warcraft is the second most important thing in the universe, exceeded only by everything else in the universe (if a subject's importance to humanity can be gauged by the amount of information humanity compiles about it). This is why it's important, I think, that people get smarts before they get suffrage. (Again, I would be a lot more optimistic about the potential of the Internet as a tool for broadening general knowledge and civic competence if I couldn't pick any report on, scroll to the bottom, and read the viewer comments section without immediately craving liquor and sleeping pills.)

(Statement: I am not advocating a dictatorship or other authoritarian system as an alternative. I do not presume to prescribe anything. I am in favor of whatever system of government will sustainably benefit the most members of the public over the longest period of time. After watching half the American public cheerfully vote against their own interests every other year, I am not confident that democracy is that system.)

A friend suggested once that the elected legislators of our country could (I'm not sure if he also said "should") be entirely replaced by an Internet-enabled direct democracy. Basic idea: every measure is simply put up for a vote, every citizen with an I.P. address can cast an e-ballot, and the government proceeds based on the majority vote. Pure, direct, simple, good.

Your joyless elitist buzzkill of a Luddite would like to express a few reservations about this proposal.

I. Most members of the voting public haven't the time or interest to read every piece of national business going up for a vote. Remember when everyone was in an uproar about how long and complicated 2010's healthcare bill was? Imagine if you -- as a responsible citizen who is honor-bound to cast a knowledgeable and reasoned vote about the matter at hand -- had to go through pages and pages of legislative text every freaking time something was to be voted on. Most people frankly have better things to do, which is why we select and subsidize statesmen to do it for us (ostensibly on the basis of their diligence and competency).

II. If you hadn't noticed, the masses tend to make foolish and shortsighted decisions about -- well, just about everything. People tend to react to events with kneejerk responses and snap judgements rather than reason. If any research has been taken toward measuring what sort of effect the culture of the Like/Dislike Button has on this natural human tendency, I'd be interested in seeing its findings.

There are plenty of things we could do to fix, say, our carbon emissions problem. (It's been awfully warm for February, don't you think?) How about a gas tax that would funnel cash into public transportation, infrastructure, and alternative energy sources? It sure makes sense in the long term -- but it would be cumbrous and painful in the short term, and that's the sole object of most people's concerns. Again, this is a problem of human nature. I would hail the Internet if it could train people out of it, but something tells me it's doing more harm than good in this regard.

But back to the idea of web-enabled direct democracy: imagine if government was even more subject to the prevailing public mood on a given day in making its decisions. How effective is the House of Representatives? It's an intransigent, smoke-blowing clusterfuck precisely because its members are the most subject to public mood swings of all our statesmen. A direct democracy means everything becomes more like the House of Representatives.

III. People tend to be very easily swayed by demagogues. If you lean left, think about Glenn Beck mobilizing the loonies in the 2010 midterms. If you lean right, think about all those electrified kids who voted for rock star candidate Obama despite having only a vapid understanding of current events, domestic policy, etc. The more direct the democracy, the more power is granted to charismatic charlatans who are best at stoking and taking advantage of the basest instincts of the masses -- and one might guess that they can do it better with an extremely efficient, ubiquitous, and unregulated mass medium at their disposal. In the information age, misinformation travels and settles with more rapidity than ever before. (OBAMA IS A MOOSLIM might be an instance.)

Ancient Athens had a much more directly democratic system of government than our own, and they were extremely prone to demagogues who goaded the voting public into making very, very bad decisions. You can read all about it in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War -- and it looks like you might just have to take a look at the book instead reading the summary. Its Wikipedia article is pretty bare bones; the reason for this is because it's not as immediately interesting to the public as, say, Beyoncé, whose Wiki page adds up to 11,000 words to the History's 3,400.

(Once more: in a true democracy, what's most popular right now becomes what's most urgent and important.)

Hm. Speaking of the Greeks.

The impression I get from reading texts about and by the ancient Greeks is that the average educated Athenian citizen was, proportionately, much smarter than the average American citizen. (Yes, yes -- it's not totally fair to compare the educational institutions of an ancient city state and a modern nation state with very differently-constructed societies. I know) Greek education placed a superlative emphasis on memorization and the internalization of knowledge. They were famously able (and required) to memorize very, very long chunks of the Iliad and Odyssey -- assignments that would be decried as absolutely unreasonable by the students of today's public schools (and their whining parents). There is no reason to suspect their powers of retention were limited only to poetry.

Socrates -- a much wiser man than you or me --famously condemned the advent of the written word because he feared what might happen if human knowledge became externalized:

[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

This quote exists within our cultural knowledge today because pupil of Socrates named Plato remembered it -- and then wrote it down. And you're reading it now because I was able to punch "socrates written word" into Google and copy/paste it here.


Again: I can't say that the Internet isn't tremendous; that it hasn't done a lot of neat things and won't continue to benefit and astound us. But I feel as though the notion of it as an unalloyed blessing to humanity is, to put it kindly, somewhat overstated. Or, to put it frankly, it's a fantasy. The reality is that, at best, the Internet is a tool that lets people do the same old shit people have always done since antiquity in a more rapid and less thorough way; and at worst, it's mostly serving to make people more scatterbrained, frivolous, demanding, and shallow: it's more a massive annexation of Newton Minow's vast wasteland than the bridge to a better future and a better humanity.

Either way, your joyless elitist Luddite acknowledges that he loses. The wheels turn with too much momentum for anyone to halt at this point. But before he stops typing and passes out for the evening, he'd like to share a few words from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts....

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.

As we go full steam ahead toward our digitized New World, I can only hope we'll consider what we're jettisoning in order to get there.

ON ANOTHER NOTE, you should totally buy my book, which is available for the Kindle and all like devices. It has no Luddite whining and is in fact about ska bands and sunrises. And it's not even eight bucks!


  1. I kinda want to respond, but I'm torn here. I've discussed similar subjects with you. Hell, earlier I posted a link to those 4 pages I was talking about and got no response.

    But (please don't take this the wrong way) you seem more interested in complaining about the current situation and problems, than you do in finding/hearing solutions for them. So many tout this "we're powerless" meme that whenever someone tries to offer a solution, they're ignored... in favor of more bitching.

    Honestly, do you think you want a solution? That's not sarcasm or mocking. You ignored my 4 pages. I remember when I mailed you some of my ideas your response was basically "you better know someone with a lot of money."

    I'd be happy to point out my solutions to the problems you have with direct democracy, civilization and journalistic funding, but first you'd have to acknowledge that there's a possibility that there are solutions to those problems, and I might know them.

    We could even make it a debate if you wanted. I could do actual sourced research. It could be fun. I'll even buy your book and comment on it. Hows that sound?

    TL;DR? My views are different than yours, this post only matters if you think your views could be wrong. Also, I'll buy/comment on your book if you comment on my 4 pages:

  2. Zade, I'm not going to speak for Pat, but you posted your links multiple times on posts that have nothing to do with them. The fact that it seems this is for a contest makes it look as though your just using his blog to advertise yourself. He obviously isn't going to comment on stuff like that.

    I don't know what private conversations you may have had with him, but if their purpose had anything to do with your blog, then I wouldn't be surprised if he dismissed them. I don't know the whole story about this, but it seems like your just trying to advertise your blog.

    1. Well, actually, I posted them once (this being the second time), and the reason was because you can't post 4 pages worth of words in the comments section. My "blog" consists of only those 4 pages and it's badly edited, I never plan on updating it. Besides that, the contest is over. It's not advertising.

      But if you still feel it's inappropriate, I would be happy to delete it on your behalf.

  3. Okay, okay, okay. I'm not sure what you want me to say, though.

    Human history is a precession of solutions to problems becoming new problems requiring solutions, which then become problems that need to be solved. Epochal shifts arise out of circumstance and necessity. The Internet and its effects on civilization are no exception. Nobody commanded it to happen. Nobody mapped out a plan for it. The digital age was the ineluctable product of circumstance. Whatever follows will be its direct, likely unforeseen consequence.

    It is as easy to propose solutions to problems as it is to point them out. I am more interested in compelling people to think rather than telling them what they ought to do. At least I have some small chance at getting results from the former.

    So what do you want me to say about your augmented reality headset? Just patent it and get it out there. Whatever the hell I have to say about it won't make a difference on how or whether it is adopted. You should be looking for people who can fund, build, and market it instead of asking for a stamp of approval (from me of all people).

    I am reminded of an American inventor and entrepreneur named Dean Kamen. After a string of successes and awards, he announces that he is preparing the Next Big Thing. His new and top secret invention is going to change EVERYTHING. It's going to cause as epochal a shift in civilization as the automobile. Cities will be constructed around it, he said. Prior to its release, it was known only as "IT."

    That invention was the Segway.

    At the same time, I think about Mark Zuckerberg slapping together the Facebook prototype for kicks back in 2003 and wonder if he had any idea what his toy would eventually become.

    All I'm saying is go one step at a time. Don't think about what the endgame's going to look like before you've even nudged your first piece.

    Regarding the Economic Cooperative piece -- again, what do you want me to say? If you believe can assemble it, go for it. But for me to sit here and weigh the pros and cons of what is at this moment a totally fictional institution would be as fruitless as any bitching I've ever done.

    I'm not the person you should be talking to. Find people with money. Find people with connections. Find people who are interested in helping you make it happen. I have absolutely nothing to contribute and frankly wonder why you would think I do.

    You have your ideas, goals, and guiding philosophy. Go act on them. That's all you can do.

    1. Thanks. I already bought your book. I was kind of lying to you.

      But if we're just doing this to think, then I'd like you to skim this:

      I think that thread is oxymoronic.

  4. Pat, you might find this interesting. While I can't show you how Mark Zuckerberg felt working upon Facebook in its early days, I can show you what the engineers designing what would become the internet were thinking as they were doing this. Here is a link to some of the more interesting RFCs:
    RFCs are files that were used to harvest peer review by internet engineers. It's interesting seeing how they approached their work, as well as how little they seemed to know about how much this would impact the world. They're very interesting if you ever have a few minutes to check them out.

  5. Saying things like "you seem more interested in complaining...than you do in finding/hearing solutions" seems to be a popular sentiment when people point out problems with things that most people enjoy. But how are these solutions ever going to be found if no one bothers to point out that they're needed? That's what this so-called "bitching" is supposed to accomplish: Getting people to realize that a problem even exists.

    1. Why didn't you reply to me directly?

      I disagree. I tried articulating why, but gave up.

      Also, I refuse to believe that anyone "enjoys" American politics. If you believe that, then, in my opinion, your opinion doesn't matter.

    2. Is it my imagination, or was this post about the internet? I'd say that most people enjoy the internet. What did you think I was talking about?

    3. Yes. It's absolutely your imagination that the post was solely about the internet. Check the tags at the bottom.

      I was speaking about civilization and politics.

    4. The article is about how the internet affects society. To put it bluntly (and not completely accurately), it's about why many things we enjoy about the internet are bad. And what is it about my first comment that you "disagree" with?

    5. This part:

      That's what this so-called "bitching" is supposed to accomplish: Getting people to realize that a problem even exists.