Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some Folks Still Don't Get It (The Internet That Is)

Check out the interesting review in the New York Sun of Lee Siegel's book Againast the Machine. According to the reviews (see also, the New York Times Review here), the book amounts to an anti-internet polemic, or at least a repudiation of the narrative of technological triumph as a democratizing cultural force. Clearly, some older institutions are being torn down and replaced because of the internet, but I fail to see what's so bad about change in and of itself. From the New York Sun review,

But if Mr. Siegel's claims about the Internet's antidemocratic tendencies are at times overblown (he coined the term "blogofascism"), he is correct that the blogosphere is as adept at drawing out the worst tendencies in a democracy as it is of fostering the good ones. His discussion of the blogosphere's attitude towards the mainstream media illustrates the point; the ballyhoo about "citizen journalists" storming the Bastille of established journalistic institutions has not materialized. In fact, most Web logs are an extended commentary and conversation about the news produced by those institutions, not a qualitative challenge to them. "You really have to marvel at how the blogosphere has turned a quintessential product of democracy like the American newspaper into an obstruction of democracy," Mr. Siegel writes.

Mr. Siegel is also an adamant defender of the need for expertise against the claims of bloggers who see it as a form of elitism or privilege. "Professions and trades require training," Mr. Siegel writes, and this is no less true for journalists than for other professionals. No one, he reminds us, is eager to engage the services of "citizen heart surgeons." Not surprisingly, Mr. Siegel is especially exorcised by the loss of authority of the cultural critic; like travel agents, critics have seen their business severely compromised by the Internet. Yet the passenger who conveniently purchased his ticket online is often dismayed to find that he has no reliable advocate to intervene with the airline when his flight is suddenly cancelled. So, too, our culture's embrace of the everyman critic risks leaving us bereft of standards for measuring the quality of music, art, and literature — aside from the popularity demonstrated by page hits or Amazon rankings.

This is the sort of criticism I've heard time and time again and it just reeks of someone who is familiar with the internet without really understanding it. No, blogging will never replace the traditional news gathering role of the mainstream media, because news gathering is a complex and tedious operation requiring a great deal of manpower. I have no idea how many thousands of corespondents work for the Associated Press, but that's an example of a job that can't be done by just one or even a large group of individuals. You need a big corporate organization to run that sort of operation. Blogging has never been about replacing the American newspaper traditional media, it's been about providing alternative interpretations and greater checks and balances on the stories reported by the traditional media. It's been about making the institutions we do have that much better.

It's interesting that Siegel refers to experience and training because that's exactly what a blog can provide. When a major legal decision is in the news, I don't rely on the analysis of newspaper reporters who may or may not have had any legal training. I rely on law professor bloggers who are experts in the particular areas being reported on. The same thing can be said for science-related news or any other technical subject. Blogging gives us expert opinions we may not find in traditional media.

Siegel seems to be more of spurned cultural critic, but still, what makes those who work for big media better sources of cultural criticism than other experts in the field. Is a big city film critic any better than a college film professor who maintains a blog? The point about the democratizing influence of blogs and the internet is that blogs pose no barriers to entry. Siegel seems to focus on the bad- any idiot can have a blog- but fails to understand the way the internet encourages a truly free market in ideas. All blogs are not equal and the blogs with the most readership are the blogs that blog readers consistently find to be of the highest quality kept up by individuals with the best credentials.

Siegel's comments on the travel industry are a telling indication of a complete lack of understanding of the market. Travel agents are being replaced with online travel conglomerates because the big online services are that much cheaper. Personal service costs more and when it comes to travel, most people don't feel the need to pay for that personal service. This isn't really about the internet at all, it's about what consumers want.

And while I do sympathize with some of Siegel's criticism of MySpace and social networking sites turning our inner most selves into products for consumption- something I do find a bit distasteful myself- such criticisms ultimately come back to the point I made to start. Yes the internet is drastically changing the way we live our lives, but who am I- who is anyone- to say that those changes are for the worst. We're not mindless robots subjecting ourselves to the possibilities of technology merely because those possibilities are there- We are a thinking, rational people, whose culture reflects our desired uses of technology. No matter what some snooty, put-off, old has-been writer might say.


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