Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Canaries in the coal mine?

A question: are the internet naysayers* right?

A more useful question: what can be learned from their criticisms?

Last month, I wondered about the internet's strengths also being its weaknesses, and what could be achieved by addressing these weaknesses, rather than always playing to its strengths. I didn't realise at the time that the post, in places, was also touching on issues highlighted in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, namely: how much we actually absorb of what we read online; and the feeling that the internet doesn't encourage a reader to stop and reflect (there's always another link, widget, text, etc. beckoning us on).

Regarding The Shallows, I'm more in the Clay Shirky / Steven Johnson camp - i.e. on balance, the benefits of the internet significantly outweigh the drawbacks - but there does seem to be a lot of this going about at the moment; Carr is far from the only one waxing gloomy about what the internet might be doing to us. To name just the first two that spring to mind:

Andrew Keen has decried "the cult of the amateur" - the internet's user-generated assault on professionalism and factual authority. And Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto seeks to re-emphasise individual creativity, expertise, and the human above machines and the crowd.

I come from a philosophy background. What many philosophers will tell you is that philosophy isn't so much about answering life's big questions as framing those questions in a useful and productive way. What interests me in all the current internet naysaying, then, is precisely the questions: these are the crucial parts of the arguments. Whether we want to call the conclusions of Carr, Keen et al overly-pessimistic, or indeed wrong, or question certain of their interpretations of scientific evidence, still their original questions tend to persist - so if not their answers, then which?

Take a recent article in Prospect Magazine. Evgeny Morozov, in his critique of The Shallows, largely upholds the questions Carr raises - indeed he adds a number of his own that he believes even more pressing, regarding the wider societal effects being exerted by social networking - but instead argues that the internet will self-correct many of its shallowing tendencies. Companies, he says, will increasingly offer products and services to help those who want to counterbalance the shallowing effect, individuals will seek to positively alter their habits. Already, for example, there's Instapaper to make online reading distraction-free.

Rather than dismiss Carr's questions, Morozov simply takes a different approach, brings a different perspective to bear on them, leading to - for the most part - more encouraging results.

Our challenge, then, if we disagree with Carr's gloomier conclusions - or for that matter Morozov's re. social networking - is to create the conditions and constructs that will prevent those conclusions from becoming correct. To take his questions and answer them positively, rather than simply dismiss them. To evaluate how well he has asked his questions, and address them another way.

In short, however optimistic we are about the internet, we shouldn't dismiss the naysayers - even those with whom we disagree. We need them. Whatever else they might have to say, it may not be the questions they ask that are wrong.

*Or in some cases 'hmm'-sayers.

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