September 13, 2007

The Internet: the best worst thing ever

Or is that the worst best thing ever?

Via LISNews I see that there's an online debate between Andrew Keen of The Cult of the Amateur fame and Emily Bell of the Guardian's Comment is Free. The topics is Is today's internet killing our culture?

It's quite the heated debate and, as you can imagine, both sides get in some pretty good shots. On the whole, however, I have to give the debate to Bell, who argues on that the Internet is enhancing our culture more than it is damaging it. Bell definitely gets in the better points.

I'll give a good point from each side:


The end result is disastrous for both the creator and consumer of culture. The internet is producing the cult of the amateur, a dumbing-down of culture, in which innocence is replacing expertise as the determinant of value. Worse still, as the copy loses its economic exchange value, the only way artists will be able to make a living will be through the live performance of their work. So the end result of the so-called "democratised" culture will actually be a shrinkage in both the size of the cultural economy and in the number of professional artists. That means fewer professionally-produced books, movies and recorded music. Only the rich will be able to afford to physically access the artist in an economy where value will be increasingly determined by physical presence. Instead of more cultural democracy, therefore, the internet will create more cultural inequality and privilege.


The internet challenges us all to up our game - it exponentially increases our audience, but it exposes frailty. It creates noise of deafening volume and, yes, it threatens copyright. But as Larry Lessig says, there are now more layers of extended copyright on pieces of creativity than ever before - and the net result of this is to actually stifle creativity rather than preserve it. Why should Disney own The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and every future iteration? Wealth in the worlds of music, art, film, television, publishing, is greater than it ever has been, but it is not evenly distributed. This is not the problem of the web or the internet but the problem of those creative "industries".

The shift in the way artists and other cultural workers get compensation for their efforts is certainly changing. The changes may not be entirely fair (as in other times of social change) but that doesn't make them any less inevitable. I think that the changes are mostly for the good but that doesn't make, for example, abuses of intellectual property any more justified.

On the other hand they both make indefensible statements as well, which I think are more interesting to comment on:

You accuse me of "golden ageism" and suggest that nobody under 25 would agree with me. Interesting, and perhaps a fair point. But is that a compliment or a critique? Why should I trust people under 25 to determine the future of culture and information? I don't see a lot of under 25-year olds writing for the Guardian Online (which is why I read it). Today's under-25 generation should be more focused on the laborious work of learning about the world than in expressing their often inchoate and ill-informed opinions. What, exactly, have you learned from the under-25 generation about the war in Iraq or the media business that you didn't already know?

Even Keen acknowledges how dumb this is later on. It seems to me that the old can learn a lot from the young, perhaps as much as the young can learn from the old. Perhaps Keen's better point here would be to point out how the popular culture isolates the two groups, leaving young people in the grasp of an increasingly infantilizing, shallow, envy-driven, consumerist youth culture (sorry, the film festival is in town and I'm just sick to death of celebrities). Perhaps the Internet plays a key role in this, perhaps it doesn't, but it's a good way to approach the age divide on the web.


On the one hand we might rail, quite rightly, against the tabloid mania for ripping away every last vestige of privacy and turning it into news. On the other hand we think full disclosure on the web will help to raise standards. I think the difference would be marginal. Anonymous bloggers who really have any influence are always surfaced, by volition or investigation, in any case. Let me draw a couple of analogies: peer reviewing academic papers is done anonymously, for good reason; voting is done under the cloak of anonymity. Better that than the nightmare of validation - how do you know someone is who they say they are?

This, of course, is just dumb. Neither peer review nor voting are in the least bit anonymous. They are partially anonymous in the sense that identities are not known to all parties. The people that are allowed to review papers must absolutely prove who they are and that they have proper credentials. They are not anonymous to the editors of the journals or conferences.

Similarly, when we vote, we must absolutely prove that, first we are citizens with the right to vote and second, that we are who we say we are when we go to the ballot box. The fact that no one person knows who we voted for is not at all related to anonymity but to privacy. I'm surprised that Bell didn't discuss the well-known concepts of constructive vs. drive-by anonymity, which are the relevant issues here. I'm even more surprised that no one seemed to call her on it.

In any case, the debate is challenging and invigorating, well worth reading the whole thing.

No comments: