:: Article

A Couple of Things About the Internet

By Max Dunbar.


Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Douglas Rushkoff, Or Books 2010

The alphabet led to accountability, abstract thinking, monotheism, and contractual law. The printing press and private reading led to a new experience of individuality, a personal relationship to God, the Protestant Reformation, human rights, and the Enlightenment. With the advent of a new medium, the status quo not only comes under scrutiny; it is revised and rewritten by those who have gained new access to the tools of its creation.

The internet is not as good as you think

Rushkoff qualifies the above paragraph immediately with the line: ‘Unfortunately, such access is usually limited to small elite.’ The invention of the alphabet, he reminds us, did not lead to mass reading and writing but to ‘a society of hearers, who would gather in the town square to listen to the Torah scroll read to them by a rabbi.’ Likewise, he says, the printing press meant more people could read: but unless one had the wealth and skill to own and operate moveable type one could not write. Like radio and television, the tools of communication were monopolised by the rich and powerful.

So it goes. Most of the internet appears to be owned by the big groovy new dotcom corporations, which have turned out to be as rapacious and degrading as the old bricks and mortar corporations. Google lost its claim to not being evil when it handed up Chinese dissidents to the communist police state. (At a congressional hearing in 2007, Congressman Tom Lantos told Google’s chief execs that ‘While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies’.)

The internet allows people to write and publish for a potential audience of billions and yet the digital revolution is an unfinished revolution. The ONS calculates that almost 30% of UK households are without internet access. Consider that it is easier and cheaper to buy goods and access services online; then consider that, as with everything, the people without are the people who need it most – pensioners, disabled people and much of the working class. A seriously progressive government would install high speed broadband in every last home.

If you are still convinced that the internet is a fully democratised medium take a look at political blogging. Blogging is the most self-obsessive of all written crafts. A significant percentage of all blog posts discuss: technical issues surrounding blogging; the impact of comments moderation on debate; comparisons of blogs with the mainstream press; wild futuristic essays about how blogging will supplant print journalism entirely. Watch Jeremy Paxman interview Guido Fawkes for an object lesson in the staggering self-regard of many political bloggers.

For all its revolutionary pretensions blogging will never replace true journalism. Reporters file copy while being shot at in war zones. Bloggers gain weight and write lengthy op-eds. Blogosphere commentary tends to oscillate between far left orthodoxy and a kind of mad, vicious libertarianism. Bloggers tend to be professional men with good incomes and most would kill for a column on one of the mainstream newspapers that they affect to despise. There tend not to be many successful working class bloggers. Tools of communication are only useful if you can communicate and, in 2010, Britain’s poor are still cursed with bad or non existent reading and writing skills. For too many working class people, creative online expression is restricted to Facebook comments. There are whole areas still blocked off by low expectations and low preparation. Since I joined Twitter the main topics of discussion on my timeline have been Wikileaks, the student demos and the Twitter joke trial. All important issues. But I wonder if they are top priority for people in Worksop or Northenden or Lewisham.

The internet is not as bad as you think

The conventional critique is that social networking is anti-social networking. Facebook and Twitter relegate us to a screen when we could be spending time with friends or loved ones; they are private spaces whose owners will sell our personal data to ruthless marketeers or ID fraudsters; they reduce political and social activism to groups and likes. Here’s a good example. Rushkoff introduces us to a party girl called Gina. She goes to a club on the Upper East Side. The place is packed with a great atmosphere, but Gina worries that the real good time is happening elsewhere. She scrolls through tweets and status updates and decides that the place to be is an identical club a few blocks away. Gina cabs to the other club – and then spends the whole night blogging and tweeting about what a good time she’s having. ‘Gina is the girl who is everywhere at once, yet – ultimately – nowhere at all.’

But this is a human nature problem. Everyone has had the grainy anxiety (particularly in youth) that the best of times is always happening somewhere else; and humans are self-reflexive creatures, who prioritise the fact of the experience over the experience itself. Once in a while it would be good to hear the positive side. The comic writer Graham Linehan recently tweeted that he’d been to a wedding of long-lost friends reunited on Facebook: ‘…the kind of everyday miracle that’s invisible to people like, oh, to pick a name out of a hat, Aaron Sorkin.’ The news feed and twitter board are a lifeline for people who, for some reason or another, cannot go out – because they are in rural isolation, they are a lone parent looking after a child, they cannot walk, they are on a bad depression. Just a visible reminder that people are still out there, that the world is still there, can make all the difference.

One thing is clear. Rushkoff: ‘The good news is we have undergone such profound shifts before. The bad news is that each time, we have failed to exploit them effectively.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 2nd, 2010.