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Hive Times

January 18, 2010

Surviving the whims of the many

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The New York Times on Friday posted an eye-opening review of a new book by the famed Silicon Valley prophesier Jaron Lanier, an early champion of Internet populism who now seems to have reconsidered his love for the ever-intractable Web. Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, condemns Web 2.0 culture for trampling intellectual property, diminishing the importance of uniqueness, and fostering the digital equivalent of mob rule. To prove his theory, the author cites some of my favorite guilty pleasures—Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—as insidious forces bent on stripping us of our individual voices.

I haven’t yet read Lanier’s book, but the Times review alone has stirred my longstanding ambivalence toward the Age of Ones and Zeros. I’ve always met this brave new world with resistance, adapting to new technology with one hand while pinching my nose with the other. As a generation on the cusp of old media and new, I’ve watched about half of my cohorts embrace blogs, Twitter, and social networks while the other half slowly vanished into an ink smudge of analog obsolescence. At the same time, I slowly, begrudgingly, adopted the use of these cute little tools with a snarky sigh of acceptance, all the while proclaiming myself a lover of the clearly superior forms of old media with which I grew up.

I could never explain quite why I opposed the new order, and over the years I’ve chalked it up to a glut of idiosyncrasies—fear of the unknown, cultural myopia, Gen-X skepticism, plain old curmudgeonliness, or what have you—but my unease was always fueled by one particularly haunting thought: a world in which everyone has a say in everything.

On the surface, opposing such a world seems so bigoted. After all, why shouldn’t we all have a say in things? That’s fair, right? Yet the concept so rarely works in practical application that the wigged gentlemen who framed our Constitution even added a set of checks and balances to prevent it, hence the Bill of Rights, which protects the individual from mob rule. In other words, if enough people hated this blog post, they couldn’t simply “vote” to have me killed, as killing me would violate my civil right to, well, live. Individual civil rights trump the whims of the majority, and thank goodness for that, lest we would still live in a country of separate drinking fountains and an all-male Congress.

The Internet operates on the opposite principal, distorting the playing field so that the individual is lost under the illusion of democracy. On YouTube, for instance, a view is a view, and because videos of 17-year-old girls dancing around in their underwear will never fail to attract a certain sizable subset of the population, such videos may garner a higher ranking than a national address by President Obama. Does that make them more valuable to society? (Okay, depends on whom you ask.)

Meanwhile, as browser software has evolved to meet the growing interactivity of Web surfing, the former domain of sound opinion has become a breeding ground for unchecked schmuckdom. A review by the veteran New York Times critic A.O. Scott, for instance, is now saturated with flippant comments by readers, shielded by anonymity, who even get to rate the review from one to four stars—a kind of game of Critique the Critic. Not that the Times hasn’t always included editorials from everyday folk, but the new level of interactivity has one wondering when Pinch Sulzberger will decide to add a “like” button to stories about al Qaeda cells in Yemen.

The Internet isn’t going away (yes, I stopped wishing for that back in 1998), and putting the genie back in the bottle is about as practical as trying to convince people the world is flat. However, it’s worth pondering the questions about the future of our society that remain open ended: If everyone has a voice, does anyone? And if we truly are moving toward some Borg-like hive mind à la Star Trek: the Next Generation, is there anything we can do to mitigate its ill effects? Can we choose a life off the grid, or is resistance futile?

Andy Warhol once said, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” but what he failed to foresee was how the changing definition of fame would render the concept obsolete. Time magazine can slap a mirror on its cover and dub us all “Person of the Year” just as easily as we can publish our own scathing commentary about Time magazine’s irrelevance. Andy’s future is here, and we’re all as famous as we are anonymous.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolina Maine permalink
    January 18, 2010 6:21 pm

    I loved this! I resisted FB for a long time and it finally dawned on me that I was missing out on the lives of friends–so I joined.

    Blogging-it gave me something to do and a wonderful way to meet awesome people from my kitchen (where I used to blog). Though I have met folks I wish I hadn’t–most of the people have been kind and fascinating.

    I do think anonymous comments should be restricted and that an email account should be active for at least a year before people can comment on articles.

    The web, even Google, is full of junk when you conduct a search–articles written by amateurs with no references abound. I miss the old days of the internet-which was actually-a better source of information.

    Great post!

  2. January 19, 2010 1:38 am

    Thank you, CM.

    The computer is definitely a mixed blessing. I think our generation will have the hardest time adjusting — we’re young enough to integrate the technology into our lives, but old enough to clearly remember what things were like before the Internet.

    I remember my parents going on about TV and how it changed the world. I never quite understood, because I grew up with it. To me, TV was just something that always existed. Similarly, younger people will never feel the displacement I feel regarding the Internet. To them, the Web is just something that exists.

  3. January 19, 2010 12:52 pm

    We all have a voice. Does it matter who is listening?
    I am perfectly content to be famous, anonymously.
    We can all revel in our own shcmucked up opinions and stroke our own egos.

    • January 19, 2010 1:19 pm

      It matters if what you have to say is worth listening to. Anonymity is a graveyard of great things.

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