The Internet and Culture 2.0

Bryan Appleyard has written an interesting article for todays Sunday Times entitled The web is dead; long live the web which explores some arguments from Andrew Keen's forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting our Economy.

The article focuses on Keen’s arguments regarding the threat of what has been called Web 2.0 on culture. Although somewhat hyperbolic – "It’s the cult of the child . . . It’s all about digital narcissism, shameless self-promotion. I find it offensive." – Keen’s actual arguments are relevant and demand a response from those who positively champion ‘Culture 2.0’.

The "digital narcissism" criticism aside, and it’s not a criticism without foundation, some of the more telling arguments Keen levels are that:

  • anonymity underminines both the veracity of online debate as well as aiding its descent into "a claustrophobic environment, appealing chiefly to a certain kind of aggressive point-scoring-male".
  • the kind of libertarianism that advocates of Web 2.0 expound as a virtue is problematic. The lack of controls in online debates is surely related to their often hostile nature and, as Appleyard points out, this has even led to Web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly calling for a blogging code of conduct.

For me the most important criticism in this article, and one I’d like to see addressed, is the notion of the Wisdom of Crowds or Collective Intelligence, which is often argued as a key benefit of Web 2.0. The question that needs to be answered: is culture the kind of thing where the collective opinions of many amateurs will lead us to more intelligent conclusions than those of experts? And maybe the same could be said of particle physics?

Of course this just addresses one kind of collective intelligence, the ask the audience type. Another type that needs exploding is that which purports that network connectivity is drawing us closer to a kind of Chardinian noosphere or even a Husserlian intersubjective Monadology.

It will be interesting to see how the collective intelligence of the blogosphere responds to Keen’s arguments.

8 thoughts on “The Internet and Culture 2.0

  1. I’ve read this article through and I can’t see that it says anything new. It seems to me like the usual bog-standard objections that have been circulating for several years. In my opinion, there is no one answer to any of the ‘questions that need to be answered’. Unfortunately a spin-off from print culture is an assumption that once a question has been framed, somebody somewhere will be able to answer it, and if they can’t, then that is taken as evidence of proof of whatever it is the interlocutor was trying to prove. The Right have been using this tactic against the Left for years, trying to push them onto the back foot. But it’s not true of the human world, nor has it ever been, that every question can or should be answered. I suspect that ‘culture’ is an attempt to formulate some answers which a group can agree on so that everyone can breathe a sigh of relief as they wallow in the warm jello of consensus. Fact is, if ‘Web 2.0’ has a message at all, it is that there are no answers. It’s fluid, it’s messy, it’s uncertain. Just like Real Life. Isn’t it time we accept that for the disturbing reality it is and just get on with living in it?

  2. Its interesting that you propose a rather fatalistic attitude to just getting on and living with Web 2.0 culture whilst allowing yourself the luxury of criticising print culture.
    I dont think anyone would deny that life is fluid and messy but that doesnt mean we should ignore the effects that the adoption of new technologies are having on society and culture, be they positive or negative.
    If, as your answer suggests, print technology had certain cultural implications that are criticisable, then the same must go for Web 2.0. In this sense Keens observations are relevant whether they are old objections or not.

  3. I think that web 2.0 culture is not libertarian – every internet community sets itself up with many kinds of rules and conventions. And the more time one spends online, learning about the interet’s infrastructure, the more one recognizes the importance of many other kinds of regulation too. Web 2.0 culture just teaches people to expect to have a hand in defining those rules.

  4. I read that article as well and just been browsing Andrew Keen’s blog. Can’t say that it impresses me on first skim.
    Looks to me that Keen’s peddling yet another version of the cultural dope hypothesis. I can imagine him in a previous life in Athens arguing endlessly against democracy.
    Personally I’m quite sceptical about any notion of web2.0 being a libertarian paradise. As with web1.0 and its precursors, communities and heirarchies and means of gaining status will be found. Similarly, as an occasionally grumpy materialist atheist I have doubts about any emerging noosphere. Technology can be transformative but mostly it just seems to let us do the same things in different ways. If the future’s going to look like anything, I have bets on it looking something like Firefly. For example, in the 60s, lasers were the things of sci-fi and Tomorrow’s World. Now, I use one as a cat toy – they’ll chase the red dot to the point of exhaustion.
    Seems to me that Keen’s just partaking in that same-old, same-old Manichean debate. I think that a more nuanced analysis may be more prosaic but, ultimately, more useful.

  5. My favourite clip of film regarding how the future will look, and surely one of the greatest space travel scenes in movie history, is this clip from Solaris.
    Firefly would certainly be more fun though.

  6. Let’s take out “Today’s Internet” from Keen’s title and replace it with “Educating Women” or “Desegrating Schools .” Ugh! I agree, it’s the same-old, same-old Panic of the Powerful, a common condition known to suddenly attack white males of higher class status and their repressed followers whenever the masses pipe up.
    As with old beliefs, this one will have its place and then be written into history to be debated and denied on “anti-Internet” blogs, and Mel Gibson’s decendants will produce Hollywood dreck claiming the Internet never happened.
    It’s an illusion that anything posted on the web is totally anonymous, even comments on blogs. Anyway, the tracking technology will get more exact as we go forward. Anonymity will soon be something that will take more effort than most people are willing to put in; the insignificant, the incendiary, and the ignorant rants will diminish to a low roar like always. Leaders will emerge out of the internet’s tradition like today’s female and/or black trailblazers from the educational revolutions of yore.
    I personally will be sad to see this illusion of anonymity and “amateurism” go before its time. It’s good to know what is out there, give it a name and deal with it. The bad bits have to bubble to the surface and boil away before pure butter appears.

  7. The blogosphere already responded.
    Also, it’s good to keep in mind the media ownership and paymasters behind some of this ‘cultural commentary’… The Times, MySpace (I liked Web 2.0 so much I bought the company)…
    As for recognised ‘anti-utopian’ Andrew Keen, yes – some valid points, but how much of his writing is see-through journalistic opinion, using tabloid-type tricks in a Web 2.0 space – see the Sun-style highlighted catchphrases (‘shocking’, ‘stomach-churning’, ‘exposure’, ‘confession’) in this article on his blog (yes, he has a blog. How Web 2.0)?

  8. Dave,
    Can’t agree more about Keen’s blog and as I say in the original post the writing is hyperbolic.
    I do think that his comments regarding collective intelligence hold some water.
    One thing that interests me is that once one criticises Utopian tendencies, even unrealistic ones, one is immediately linked to reactionary thought. Ouch!

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