Monday, August 04, 2008

The Internet Wars

Some people want to wage a war on the Internet. Much as this sounds like one of Dubya’s pet projects, it isn’t. That of course, would have been waged on the Internets. Or as McCain would put it, on a Google. This war is by former New Republic reporter Lee Siegel.

Now castigating the “Internet” might seem like an absurd, if not futile task: it’s not like it’s a single entity or organization, with a hierarchy and mean money-makers at the top. In fact, the beauty of the Internet lies in the lack of it all: its pervasiveness, its decentralization, and its equalizing quality. And those are exactly the things that Lee Siegel criticizes.

“In terms of people just venting their opinions, I really have to take a very unpopular position here and say I don't see how that can be harnessed for good. I don't know what good comes of that kind of clamor. It makes these individuals feel good. It gives them the illusion that they're being read,” he said on NPR’s On the Media recently and made me stop dead in my tracks – literally, because I had taken the luxury of taking a podcast of my favorite show on a jog, one of many things this free-for-all Internet allows me to do.

Like most extreme sentiments, Siegel’s dislike was borne of a personal mishap: about two years ago, as a reporter for the New Republic, he adopted a virtual personality to fend off harsh, and for the most part, unfair personal attack by commenters on the magazine’s Web site. When his Internet persona, “sprezzatura” (meaning, quite craftily, “deceptive simplicity”) was outed, Siegel was suspended by the magazine and castigated in the blogging world. This led him to write the book, “Against the machine,” which points to the many ill effects of the Internet in today’s society.

Siegel blames the Internet for feeding into a pop culture that puts everything on display, and denounces it as a huge popularity contest. Calling it “the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, the elevated, asocial individual,” he disses the so-called “connectivity” that the Internet brings, and proceeds to say that being glued to a computer screen brings anything but.

Let’s face it, there’s some truth to that. Wouldn’t most people prefer to sit at a bar to catch up with a friend or walk to a coffee shop to meet an acquaintance, rather than settle down in the confines of their bedroom and chat on a virtual window? After all, we all know that’s where the metaphor of “pajama-clad” blogger came from. It wasn’t intended to represent a demographic that is social and normal.

But that was several years ago. The world has changed since then. This is a world where people meet their significant others on eHarmony, political candidates campaign on youtube, and youngsters proclaim their allegiances on social networking sites. Many people’s idea of a reprieve is settling down in a media immersion pod for several hours with access to nothing but the Internet (a.k.a . Tokyo’s Gran Cyber cafes). Even without physical contact with another human being, the entire world is open to them – through instant messaging, SMS, social networking sites and blogs.

Siegel and those Internet naysayers out there should realize that the social nature of the world is changing. Of course there is such a thing as overdoing it, as with everything else. Once a Gawker icon, Emily Gould wrote a heart-wrenching account of how her life was laid bare to the world by unrestrained revelations in cyberspace. Cyberstalkers and voyeurs abound. There are times when the comments threads on blogs become a veritable breeding ground of curse words and hate posts, often lacking in any constructive subject matter.

But in an online age with millions of voices expressing views and opinions on every topic under the sun, what is a little noise? There is no question that the computer and Internet have revolutionized the way we perceive knowledge and acquire information. We probably don’t remember as much or retain as much. Is Google making us stupid, to use Nicholas Carr’s phrase by reminding us the date of the battle of Saratoga or even a friend’s last name? In a survey conducted recently more than half the young people could not recall their relatives’ birthdays and a third were incapable of
recollecting their own phone numbers.

Technology is making so much information available to us, and is performing so much of our mind’s work that we are now left to ponder thoughts and insights we never knew we had. Hence we contemplate the motives behind that opportunistic move by a politician, the inner psyche of a criminal or well, the changing behavior of an Internet-powered society, sometimes a tad too loudly.

As Clive Thomspon writes in Wired, “by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely “human” tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming.” The vastness and potential of cyberspace has redefined memory and intelligence as we see it. What is the point of carrying that information load in our brains anyway, when we can put our minds to better use?

This is as good a reason for the vociferous opiners on cyberspace, as is Siegel’s assertion of a schoolyard mentality. And as our brain adopts different functions owing to the Internet, so it learns to filter the vast amount of content out there. The ability to select is after all an important aspect of this form of information consumption.

Something to think about. Now that Google has given us the time for it.