snip-culture2With a heavy sense of inherent irony indeed, here’s my summary and snips from a fascinating article by Michiko Kakatuni in The New York Times criticizing the copy/snip culture created by blogs and the Internet.

Her’s is not a simplistic ant-Internet screed, but a reflection about the deeper meaning of important trends. I don’t agree with it all, but well worth a read!

The Internet is reshaping culture, politics and society to…

  • Fragmenting news articles, novels and record albums
  • Emphasizing immediacy and real-time responses
  • Increasing the flood of data and information permeating our lives
  • Blogging and partisan political Web sites are putting pressure on subjectivity

…accelerate many trends…

  • The blurring of news and entertainment
  • A growing polarization in national politics
  • A deconstructionist view of literature (which emphasizes a critic’s or reader’s interpretation of a text, rather than the text’s actual content)
  • The prominence of postmodernism in the form of mash-ups and bricolage
  • A growing cultural relativism that has been advanced on the left by multiculturalists and radical feminists, who argue that history is an adjunct of identity politics, and on the right by creationists and climate-change denialists, who suggest that science is an instrument of leftist ideologues.

…that trouble even technologists (in at least 5 ways):
You Are Not A Gadget: Jaron Lanier, 49, a Silicon Valley veteran and a virtual reality pioneer
True Enough: Farhad Manjoo, 31, Slate’s technology columnist
Cult of the Amateur: Andrew Keen, a technology entrepreneur
Carl Sunstein, 55, a Harvard Law School professor who now heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and has written several books on the topic
Steven Johnson, founder of online magazine Feed, writing in The Wall Street Journal

1- Anecdotes trump evidence and analysis
More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.
Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.

2- The rise of “Water Cooler Culture”
With millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break. And in an effort to collect valuable eyeballs and clicks, media outlets are increasingly pandering to that impulse — often at the expense of hard news. “I have the theory that news is now driven not by editors who know anything,” the comedian and commentator Bill Maher recently observed. “I think it’s driven by people who are” slacking off at work and “surfing the Internet.” He added, “It’s like a country run by ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ”

3- Cyberbalkanization
Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier, as Mr. Sunstein observes in his 2009 book “Going to Extremes,” for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”
“cyberbalkanization.” Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier, as Mr. Sunstein observes in his 2009 book “Going to Extremes,” for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”

4- The End of Authorship
Pundits squeeze out reporters, authors write biographies animated by personal and ideological agendas, while tell-all memoirs, talk-show confessionals, self-dramatizing blogs and carefully tended Facebook and MySpace pages becoming almost de rigeur.
In a Web world where copies of books (and articles and music and other content) are cheap or free, Mr. Kelly has suggested, authors and artists could make money by selling “performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information” and other aspects of their work that cannot be copied. But while such schemes may work for artists who happen to be entrepreneurial, self-promoting and charismatic, Mr. Lanier says he fears that for “the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers” it simply means “career oblivion.”

5- The End of Culture
Much of the chatter online today is actually “driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media,” Lanier writes, which many digerati mock as old-fashioned and passé, and which is now being destroyed by the Internet. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier writes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

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  1. kaiserkuo

    Interesting that she makes an off-hand reference to the role of Twitter in the Iran post-election protests. I'd actually include that as an object lesson in the way in which Pollyanaish techno-utopian views of the Web can bite us in the ass. And “cyberbalkanization” isn't just happening within polities like the U.S., but among international communities as well, as I've talked about a lot in the case of Chinese and Anglophone westerners. Thanks for posting this. Great summary!

  2. Chris Burd

    It's certainly not destroying society. The media, yes. Culture? Well, it's changing culture, and maybe for the worse… but don't we old farts always think cultural change is for the worst? There are real issues here that I'm not trying to minimize.

    However, I'd stress that the internet has also been a powerful countervailing force against other forces that have been degrading culture and society. One's the increasing manipulation of media and public opinion by large organizations. The pre-internet world of the early 1990s was far more heavily shaped by marketing, focus groups and so on than, say, the 1950s or 1970s had been. That's largely an issue for the left, but some small parts of the right as well. Another trend as been the consolidation of elite opinion around values of meritocracy (in practice, credentialism) and a watered-down, self-indulgent version of 1960s values (yeah, I know they were plenty self-indulgent at the time, but they had their good side). This is largely but not entirely an issue for the right. To some extent, the internet has allowed groups (both left and right) to make an end-run around these commercial and cultural Guardians.

    People (elite-identified people) complain that the New York Times doesn't exercise dominion over respectable opinion quite the way it used to in the 1970s, without asking whether the NYT of 2010 (and the elites who speak though it) deserve to exercise dominion in the way the NYT of 1960 did.

  3. Chris:

    Yes, it is tough to weigh up the positive and negative impacts on society. There are certainly huge ways that the Internet and technology has improved society. On balance, no question it is wildly positive.

    That said, as someone who often speaks about the positive aspects of technology and the Internet, I really like to hear thoughtful dystopian views as a reality check.

    A slight digression from the post topic (but relevant to your comment): Did you see the recent article by David Brooks about how meritocracy has not necessarily brought rise in quality one would presume? Interesting to ponder.

    An excerpt:
    “Yet here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

    It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago?

    Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before?”

  4. Kaiser: Yes, I agree with your critique of the “Twitter can change the world” attitude. Interesting she does not inject more critical thinking into the comment.

    It is fascinating to look at the Balkanization effect in terms of US-China relations, as the extremes on each side echo on another. China's nationalists and the US sino-phobes effectively “friended” thanks to the Internet.

    Nice talk at SXSW, by the way!

  5. Views like these enforce my Schopenhauer-like views. Man is already a crumbling animal. All tech does is reveal it.

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  7. This has some pretty interesting points but like most mainstream media commentary about the web, it also misses a lot of points.

    I will deal with only point 1. Yes, we are all becoming ADHD in the way we take in communications and information.

    To my mind, we can always be better served with just dealing with the way it is ATM 🙂

    This trend is not going to change, it is going to increase.

    All it means is that everyone needs to get smarter at succintness. That is all I have to say, in the interests of being succint 🙂

  8. looks/sounds/feels to me like the continuation of social engineering through the traditional channel…media.

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  10. I agree we don't have the elites we used to. The old ones were easy to make fun of, but seem to have done a better job, generally. I don't know how/why, but would be interested hearing some ideas.

  11. I agree with Brooks that there is something wrong with our current set of elites. I don't know exactly what/why, but they seem less effectual than the previous guys.

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  14. qwertyportne

    Reminds me of Sven Birkerts essays in which he claims the Internet is destroying reading and books and a number of other things in our culture. He makes some valid points, however, as does Crampton.

    Thoughtful, in-depth criticism like Birkerts and Cramptons helps me evaluate how I am using the Internet to find information, communicate with people and so forth. I don't see the world wide web as something to avoid or eliminate. It's a tool that supplements rather than replaces books, face-to-face conversations, television programs and so forth. Just another example, at least for me, that a great number of things in life are AND, not EITHER/OR…


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