The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Friday, September 24, 2010

A. Lee Martinez's Marriage to the Internet (or Why the Internet is a Walking Contradiction of Good/Bad)

If you haven't seen it already, A. Lee Martinez has come out in defense of the Internet.  You see, folks are bashing the poor Internet, and someone needs to come out and say how good it really is, because, after all, the Internet is wonderful and it makes things all rainbows and flowers.

Okay, so that's an unfair look at things.  I'm being facetious, or attempting to be anyway.  A. Lee Martinez is right that there has been an inordinate amount of anti-Internet stuff lately.  Hell, there has been anti-Internet stuff flooding the, well, Internet for a while now.  See for yourself.  Even The Atlantic has provided some interesting thoughts on the "it's making us stupid" argument.  The thing is, there are probably truths and falsehoods on both sides of the argument.  There are real consequences for the changes the Internet has brought on us.  As a teacher (new though I am), I have seen what many of these changes look like:  there is an increased reluctance to "search on."  I wouldn't say that this is somehow making us dumber so much as making us progressively more ignorant.  That is a problem all on its own.

The only thing I take issue with in Martinez's post is this:
But for all its unpleasantness, stupidity, and absurdity, the internet has done the unimaginable. It has given nearly everyone a voice. (Except for the very poor, who always, always get screwed.) It has taken the ability to express yourself and made it such a common thing that we don’t realize how amazing it is. It’s allowed us to tap the collective knowledge of mankind without having to even leave our homes.
I find it amusing that this paragraph begins with what is not necessarily "good" by default, and then ends with an overwhelming positive. Yes, the Internet has completely changed how we share knowledge, and for all the bad things that the Internet does to us (I challenge the "stupid" assertion, though), the fact that it has made information, vital and trivial, instantly available to a much larger portion of the world's population than every before is a monumental feat. Yes, our world is still imperfect; the poor still do not have access to the Internet, even in the United States. But we're getting there. There will be a time when almost everyone will have access.  The more knowledge we have at our fingertips, the greater the possibility that we can be informed about the things that really matter.  The Internet, more or less, makes that possible.

The problem, though, is this idea that providing everyone with a public voice is somehow a good thing. I challenge this notion because we have seen the consequences of this in the book world. Anyone can say anything about a book these days. There are rarely consequences for what we say, except consequences that go in the opposite direction (poor sales, for example). The "expert" opinion seems to have been supplanted by the "amateur" one. There are certainly amateurs who have valuable things to say about a subject, but there are also seas of individuals who have nothing productive to add to the conversation, and yet still feel as though they should somehow be granted the same attention given to the adequate amateur or the "expert." I'm not suggesting that "experts" are always correct, or even always good at what they do. They get things wrong all the time, as do "amateurs." But they are right more often than the folks who write one line critiques on or incoherent blog posts about why *insert President here* is evil and should be impeached. Even positive critiques from these folks are meaningless in the long run.

So, I challenge this idea that providing a space for everyone to say whatever they want in public is inherently good. There are consequences: the quality of rhetoric drops drastically, false information is easy to spread, and so on. It's great that we have more voices, because diversity is always a good thing, but a limitless diversity is problematic.  The Internet, for all its wonders, has no way to deal with this.  It is powerless to what is eating it alive from the inside.  I don't think it will ever gain the power to do something about the problems it has created either.  I think we're stuck with them, for good and for bad.

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book


  1. I don't think I agree that the internet has no way of dealing with it's "infinite" diversity. Most voices are never heard (beyond close friends) and certainly never bothered with. As with all forums, certain hubs grow to respectability and large readerships and/or userbases (thinking of Wikis and online forums) and most do not.

    What exactly do you see as the threat in millions of virtually unknown blogs and forums and websites? Even considering commenters and the like - where infinite diversity can congregate at places of high readership and so-called respectability - the commenters have much smaller voices than those posting the initial information (which, theoretically, if the site is popular, is information well considered and structured. Even if toward a biased end, the voices don't become infinite in any such case).

    Just because there ARE infinite voices on the internet, doesn't mean anyone's really listening to any of them but the biggest. That mirrors physical life and mainstream publishing pretty closely.

    And it still offers information easier, quicker, and a wider range of it than any other venue.

  2. True, most voices are never heard, but that doesn't mean that the voices that are heard are necessarily the best ones. I still point to Amazon and YouTube as prime examples of this very problem. Both provide a place where anyone can say almost anything about, well, anything. While many products and subjects may not get much attention, plenty of others do. As much as I'd like to think that the folks who flood Jane Austen threads with "ths bk sux" will have no influence, the reality is that they will. That applies to any product; I just used Jane Austen as a high profile example. Ratings influence, even if the review itself is a waste of space.

    Amazon and YouTube are tiny hubs. They are enormous zones of shared information.

    I find all of that a threat to modern discourse. The Internet makes standard three things: 1) that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard and that is as valid as the next person, even if a good portion remain silent; 2) a reduction of subjects to contests of popularity; and 3) the reduction of political discourse to empty rhetoric or ad hominem ad nauseum. What the Internet has done is turn private discourse into public discourse. There are serious consequences for that, both commercially and politically.

    I'm not at all denying the Internet has value. I like that I have almost everything at my fingertips. I am simply saying that there are serious consequences for its benefits, and that we should consider whether the benefits really outweigh the negatives.

  3. Can't say that I see anything with online discourse that differs from offline discourse.

    Tackling the three potential dangers: "1) that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard and that is as valid as the next person, even if a good portion remain silent" - the internet hasn't, in any factual sense, made this true. We believe every voice deserves the freedom to speak, which we often refer to as "heard", but that doesn't by default entail that anyone pays attention. I'd also argue that while we say every voice's opinion is valid, it's not generally accepted that every valid opinion is equal in content or helpfulness. You can see this in Amazon and Netflix's ability to judge reader reviews/comments helpful or unhelpful. In the vast majority of cases, the opinions with greater content and eloquence rise to the top. Do the "this sux" comments remain? Sure, but anyone persuaded by a "this sux" comment isn't a person that would have ever had an eloquent discourse with you in any venue.

    "2) a reduction of subjects to contests of popularity" - not entirely sure what you mean by this one. That all subjects become about how popular the issues involved are? Or only popular subjects are discussed? If the former, I don't get how that happens. If the latter, that's as true as in-person discussions as it is with online discussions. There are very few people that will talk about anything except mainstream media. And generally they don't have much to say except "that looks awesome" or "that looks horrible" with little justification one way or the other.

    "3) the reduction of political discourse to empty rhetoric or ad hominem ad nauseum. What the Internet has done is turn private discourse into public discourse." - This assumes that private discourse is made public on the internet, which I don't see as a reality. The subject matter is, yes, but not the private discussions themselves. And again, forums for either heightened or inane discourse tend to sort themselves out. The forums that work to keep discourse elevated are known for (and proud of) this very thing, with the occasional "troll". Other forums are known for their inanity and attract the majority of those not wanting anything more evolved. As far as blog and news items, and even videos, it's the main content that spreads. The comments left behind are not the main discussion.

    Look at a YouTube video with 200K views. It might have anywhere from 500-1K trite and stupefyingly illogical comments. That's a very small portion of those who came to walk away with the content in the video itself, and likely took not one second to worry about the "infinitely diverse" commentary.

    Regardless of the crazy number of ridiculous conversations that take place online, the information these conversations revolve around is largely free of such things. Within any ridiculous online conversation lies a handful of very solid intellectual offerings. That is also, I'd argue, similar to sampling conversations throughout a mall or large outdoor gathering. The internet may make this vast range visible, but it didn't create it, nor does it strengthen it anymore than any free venue has ever supported it.

    The question is: has anything changes? Or is it just visible to any who care to see it? Does making it visible actually change anything? Historically speaking, access to information - including access to visible examples to how the majority of humanity thinks, interacts, and justifies itself - has done nothing but increase self-awareness, innovation, and personal education.

    I'd be careful in assuming that online commentary is more than a fraction of an inch of the online world's actual intelligence and ability to think for themselves, and discourse with others where inane random commenters can't spoil the fun.

  4. Well, hello. Glad to see you read my post and glad it inspired you to post your own thoughts. I won't offer any comment because I neither agree or disagree with your response. But it's always nice to read a thoughtful opinion.

  5. Dave: I cleaned up your comments. Blogger does post them even if it says they are too long. So, next time that happens, just copy your text and reload the comments page to make sure it posted. It's got a fluke somewhere in there.

    Now for your points, which I'll also tackle by the numbers:

    1) I wouldn't say this is true in a factual sense, but more in a slightly-subjective social sense. There is a clearly sense that the Internet does provide the conditions which allow many people to feel as though their opinions are as valuable as someone else's, even if that opinion is ignorant, poorly conceived, and so on. Again, I just look to Amazon and YouTube, which are, and remain, two of the largest social-opinion-based locations in the Internet (I'm sure there are others, but I want to remain on these two for now, simply because they are iconic examples). Trolls deem themselves equally as worthy as the individual with facts in his back pocket. People who know nothing about something, but think they do, feel exactly the same, or at least demonstrate that they do in the public spaces on those sites. While we might not generally accept that those opinions are valid ("we" being us), we do have to accept that many people do think that way. You dismiss the people who follow the "this sux" variety of commenter, but to them, that opinion is valid, and this is precisely the problem. It precludes educated public discourse, and the ramifications of that aren't felt by the people who make the uneducated comment, but by the parties who know better. Our discourse becomes the problematic discourse, while their discourse becomes the one that we look down upon, but which still remains influential on the product-subject (i.e. the product itself, the discourse, the thing that we're fixated on at that moment, or that might be a fixation at some future moment, such as a book).

    But I don't know if that's making sense; maybe it sounds like a strange philosophical rant...

    2) By the "reduction of subjects to contests of popularity" I mean that things that become popular are not determined by the inherent value of that thing to a social culture, but by the ability of the creator (and creator as thing) to market him or herself based not on quality, but on public persona. We've already seen this occur. Celebrities get books published not because they are good writers, but because they are celebrities, and within the self-publishing community, we've seen an increase in a discourse that suggests that literature should become about how you market yourself, rather than on the quality of the product. This isn't universal, because there are bound to be subjects that will attain popularity by the quality of the product, but I see the Internet as making that increasingly more difficult. In the Internet/Digital age, how are we supposed to find the reclusive author? How are we to find the Pynchons and Salingers in an age and world where the ability to create for oneself popularity, however fictive it might be, is a necessity?

    Those are questions I'm concerned with, because I don't think one's talent should ever be based on how well one markets oneself. It should be based on what you actually produce. This is also why I find films like Avatar annoying. Yes, it's beautiful and gained a lot of popularity, but if we had ignored the hype and watched the film for what it was, we would have acknowledged that, story-wise, the story is empty of life.


  6. 3) I think we need to make a distinction between the kinds of discourse, at least how I see it: there is private discourse, private-public discourse, and public discourse.

    Private discourse is those thoughts shared only among a select few, in a private space, such as in your home, bedroom, or on the phone to one of the few.

    Private-public discourse is private discussion held in a public space, which doesn't require any sort of engagement from those around you who are not part of the immediate group.

    Public discourse is discussion held in a public space with the intention to share that information, whatever it may be, with others. It assumes interaction among "anyone" willing to engage.

    So, in that sense, YouTube has taken what is typically held in the first two categories and made for a space where those opinions are able to be shared as public discourse. They cease to become private. They might be ignored, but the intention is not for the comment or the video (or video response) to remain among a select few, but to be disseminated among "anyone."

    So, when I say that YouTube has reduced political discourse from the private to the public, that is what I'm talking about. Yes, of course many of the commenters will remain unheard, but they don't go as unheard as you would like to think. There are channels and video makers who continue to spread their version of reality, for good and for bad, to anyone willing to listen. And people do listen, even if all they are doing is finding a way to take fault in what is being said. That is where I have issues. I like that we have that open forum, but I also think that it is too open. It allows anything to be said without consequence, no matter how ignorant. Watch a David Duke video. Yes, it's great that we're allowed to share information, but there are problems with that.

    So, yes, I do think things have changed. This is based on my personal experience with politics. I've seen the massive polarization of the political structure in this country. It was always polarized, but I've been here for 26 years and I have never seen anything as polarized as this (I imagine some would have said the same around the Civil Rights era). That polarization, and the way the Internet has made that possible, has directly influenced the creation of splinter groups, like the Tea Baggers/Tea Party. They have a voice in the political process that they might never have had before; yes, they have a right to that voice, but they aren't peddling anything but an ideology based in xenophobia, racism, and hysteria (in the sense that they, as subjects, are upset about "something," but that they don't actually know what that "something" is...they just keep saying "it's this" without even defining the "it" or the "this"; it's empty rhetoric, basically).

    I think I'm rambling at this point. Let me know if anything I've said here makes no sense whatsoever. I might have too much Lacan/Derrida/Marin on my head right now. Lots of French, I apologize for any confusion ahead of time.

  7. Martinez: I don't know if you and I disagree all that much. I just take issue with one little thing, and I think it's good that we can have discussions about them, even if one disagrees (or agrees). I appreciate reading your thoughts on the matter, for sure.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  8. The problem I see is that the proliferation of voices makes it easy to skip all the experts and still find clueless folks telling you what you want to hear. The problem of ignoring experts and dumbing down the discussion that individuals see is a real one.

    Glen Beck's racism too hidden for you? Go find forums calling Obama what they can't say on tv or in public.

    Tired of these scientists telling you that driving your SUV is bad? Go find an anti-science webpage to give you superficial (but wrong) arguments to keep believing what you want to believe, rather than reality.

    Etc. The internet provides a lot of information that could make us smarter, but in a lot of contexts breeds more ignorance and tribalism.

  9. Confirmation bias has always been a problem, but I do think you're right when you say that the Internet makes it easier for confirmation bias to function. There are so many voices, that one can definitely find the viewpoint that most fits with the viewpoint they want to see actualized.