Roughly a dozen years ago, when use of the Internet and World Wide Web was first ramping up, I was among a group of journalists to whom media critic and New York University professor Neil Postman delivered an informal talk. To paraphrase his remarks, he contended that we had already solved the problem of access to information and its exchange. What we were now suffering from instead, he said, was a glut of information, engulfing us in quantities we could not possibly assimilate. In an earlier era, we had social institutions, including the media, to filter this information, allowing us to evaluate its provenance and accuracy. When it came to the Web, though, we were on our own. Postman resorted to a biological metaphor, noting that against the free circulation of any virulent allegation on the Internet, we had developed no immune system.
Much has changed, radically and on a mass scale, since Postman made those observations. Witness the advent, since 2004 alone, of Facebook, MySpace (purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $580 million), and YouTube (purchased by Google for $1.65 billion). Nielsen ratings of average home Web usage during December 2007 estimate the active U.S. digital media universe to be nearly 154 million strong, spending more than thirty-five hours online in thirty-six sessions, visiting sixty-five domains in the process. No wonder network television is scrambling to get there.
Amid this transformative, quicksilver moment in communications, with “social tools” that theoretically allow for great interconnectivity, are the sorts of questions that Postman raised still relevant? The cultural critic Lee Siegel, in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, concludes that they are. His book is an articulate and at times counterintuitive jeremiad against the commercial tide and shopworn stereotypes of Internet culture, one that in its more amusing moments shows traditional media heavyweights cowering before threats from the blogosphere. But Siegel also examines its far more serious threat to journalistic accountability.
Running counter to Siegel’s point of view—mostly through its focus on the Internet’s capacity to allow self-organization of latent groups, but also in its recasting of some basic journalistic precepts—is Clay Shirky’s effusive but thoughtful paean to the Web, Here Comes Everybody. The author teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, and there is a hands-on, media-lab approach inherent in much of what he writes. Flash mobs, anyone?
Perhaps surprisingly, these Janus-faced views of the Internet experience start from the same fundamental assumption. Says Shirky: “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase…makes the change unprecedented.” Siegel observes, “For the first time in human history, a person can broadcast his opinions, beliefs, and most intimate thoughts—not to mention his face, or any other part of his body—to tens of millions of other people .The Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind.”
Siegel’s arguments are bound to bring flamers out of the Webwork, since his points add up to a generalized attack on Web positivism and claims made on behalf of the blogging universe. But for pure shock value to publishers and journalists, Shirky’s contentions are not to be outdone, since he believes that traditional media are not merely doomed but already deceased. Against the Machine and Here Comes Everybody often parallel each other in a topical sense—both discuss Wikipedia, the blogosphere, the nature of connectedness, economic modeling, mass culture—but their perspectives are on a collision course, and it is clear that Siegel disdains much of the worldview that Shirky propounds. Shirky is confident that “the Internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it.” Siegel, meanwhile, insists that “what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact, its exact opposite,” which leaves us in a state of interlinked isolation.