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Nothing’s New

Just go read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about the current commentary around the internet. He breaks the field of study into three buckets: Never-betters, better-nevers and ever-wassers.

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others–that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

I tend to fall into the ever-wasser camp, believing that this time, while intense and full of change, is not all that much more intense and full of change than other times throughout history. One of my favorite things to trot out in argument about the internet ruining whatever it’s ruining this week is Plato’s Phaedrus, where all the same things people say about the web is said about writing (it’s going to ruin the kids, no one will remember anything anymore, it’s making us stupid). Not surprisingly, then, I particularly liked this paragraph:

The odd thing is that this complaint [that the internet leads to a life of “disassociation and fragmentation”], though deeply felt by our contemporary Better-Nevers, is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

All in all, it’s well-written, and interesting, and takes a few things that are generally accepted digital wisdom and deservedly knocks them down a peg or two. Delightful.

February 9, 2011

Comments

  • Jared says:

    As you know my general inclination, with nearly everything, is to debate. But here, I agree with you 110%.

  • John S. says:

    I love thinking about people walking through the first libraries with endless rows of books and thinking about how magical having all of this knowledge and information in one place is. It probably would have been easy (the only thought even) to think: It will never get better than this!!

  • Stephen says:

    Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” covers a lot of the same ground. Essentially he talks about some of the arguments above, but also talks about how the human brain’s paths change based on how it consumes and interprets information. Ironically, I didn’t finish the book in the 3 weeks I had to read it (I had checked it out from the library) because my brain’s attention span has been cut down so much by the internet, Twitter, etc. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m going with.

    Link to the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Shallows-What-Internet-Doing-Brains/dp/0393072223

  • Ric says:

    Same as it ever was.
    We are, as we always have been, “going to hell in a handbasket.”
    Question is: is it a short trip, or a long one?
    The answer depends, of course, on your view of time . . .
    which would be another long or short subject. . .
    which depends, of course, on your view of time . . .

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