Sunday, May 17, 2009

Legacy Thinkers, the Bryan and Clive Show, foxes go hedgehog

Your essay today: Is the digital different?

Even if you don’t indulge, your life has been changed. At every turn you are told to get online and buy. Increasingly, shops are being seen as mere adjuncts to websites. Lots of things out there in cyberspace — this newspaper, for example — are just plain free, and most things are a lot cheaper. Web 2.0 is in your head and your pocket whether you like it or not. It will change everything.

What is wrong with this picture? Well, to start with, it is historically ignorant.

“The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.

Good grief: not as powerful as the wheel? Hasn't perhaps changed the way we search, think, write, conceptualize, trust? Web 2.0:
...destroys institutions and structures that can do so much more than the individual. Clive James is no web-sceptic. He runs a superb website — — and he regards the internet as “more of a blessing than a threat”. But he is wary of this focus on the individual.

Nothing to do with no such thing as society; or the past 25 years of Business School Dominated Politics? Then, at last, some self-understanding:
I know that this article — it always happens — will be sneered at all over the web by people who cannot think for themselves because they are blindly faithful to the idea that the web is the future, all of it. I will be called a Luddite.

It is the cultists who threaten the web. They are the ones encouraging dreams of a utopia of the self. They fail to see that the web is just one more product of the biology, culture and history that make us what we are. In the real world, it is wonderful, certainly, but it is also porn, online brothels, privacy invasions, hucksterism, mindless babble and the vacant gaze that always accompanies the mindless pursuit of the new. The web is human and fallen; it is bestial as much as it is angelic. There are no new worlds. There is only this one.

Wonder if the Wellcome Trust, with its commitment to open source research is cultist? Wonder if the BBC's digitization of its entire archive is cultist? The Internet Archive? Obama's use of the Interent, before, during and after his Presidential victgory? Sneering because we can't think? The Internet at its best is about thinking so that we don't have to sneer at old ideas. Or men.

C- could do better. Try reading Isaiah Berlin on Two Concepts of Liberty. It might help your thinking. Available online, I believe.

1 comment:

Ernesto Priego said...

I'm so glad you wrote something about this, Robin. It made me regret (even more) the money I had spent on the newspaper it appears on in an attempt to get away a little while from the screen.

I wonder if Edgerton's words are misrepresented or decontextualised. His book has some very interesting stuff.

The final paragraphs are so obnoxious it's hard to believe... but the guy just does not seem to even imagine there are other ways to think about the Internet and the Web (he uses the terms as if they meant the same, by the way) that do not fall into the facile binary of Luddite/cultist.