Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On Web Utopians

So I had my two debates yesterday - on Radio 4 and at the ICA - with Andrew Keen. The radio one was, according to Simon Collister, 'a most depressing piece of listening' and, Collister adds, Keen thinks in 'a stupid, stunted, snobbish and condescending fashion'. At the ICA, the questions from the audience, with a couple of exceptions, were very hostile. Disagreement is one thing, outright hostility another. So why does Keen provoke the latter rather than the former? His broad argument is that Web 2.0 is destroying mainstream media and all systems of authority and replacing them with clamorous amateurism and vacuous self-promotion.  One cannot argue that these things are happening, but one can argue - as I did at the ICA - that Keen is massively overstating his case, that he takes too seriously the frequently rather thick boosters of Web 2.0 and that we are merely in a transitional stage after which the mania and mayhem surrounding Web 2.0 will subside. But, as I said in my previous post, the hostility comes, in part, because webbies have so closely identified themselves with new web technologies that they take any dissent as a personal insult. But also, I realised at the ICA, we are dealing here with utopians. This refers back to my assessment of John Gray. Utopianism is a recurrent delusion based on the idea - patently false to any rational observer - that history tells a story with a happy ending. Its persistence and ubiquity are astonishing. Every few years, for example, utopianism infects financial markets with the conviction that the secret of perpetual economic growth has been discovered or that some new way of outwitting the markets has been revealed to the initiated. Many hedge funders and private equity zealots are currently gripped by this delusion. Utopianism invariably accompanies new technologies. Perhaps because of the disappointments of Web 1.0, we now have a particularly bad case of the delusion associated with Web 2.0. Utopians are contemptuous of those who dissent from their vision. Quite often, like Lenin, they kill them, justifying the crime as  a necessary removal of all hindrances to a brighter future for mankind. Perhaps the web zealots won't go that far, but the contempt with which they respond to any questioning of their faith is a sure sign that they have been infected by a belief system more bizarre and implausible than anything dreamed up by orthodox religion.


  1. These arguments are a waste of time. At the moment, the web is just a store of information. A warehouse full of single pages. When they manage to bind the pages into book form, then Dewey them. Then there may be some point in argument. But as it stands at the moment, all we have is the printing press. With bloody expensive ink.

  2. History isn't a story with a happy ending. I really like that - I know it's not exactly what you said but I like it. I've always suspected this truth but never seen it coined so neatly.

    People fear change and yet they fear no change. I think they just fear not being in absolute control of change: we are all control freaks now!

    One good thing about this blog is I never know who half these people are - it's a proper education in who's who. Of course, what's what is much more important than who's who: it doesn't matter where the ideas come from, the sensibility is in the mind of the beholder and we might not know much but we know what we like.

    The watchword - so they keep telling us - is choice. not quality. and we're getting exactly that on the net.

  3. Well done for spotting my late night rant, Bryan. While I don't disagree that Keen is sensationalising the internet for his own publicity I find it depressing that at the same time as complaining of digital narcissism, ordinary narcissism is apparently ok.

    Keen's argument runs that the internet is destroying mainstream media and all systems of authority and that this is the first step to a collapse into catastrophic anarchy.

    Well, instead of over-playing the negatives how about we take a positive outlook and start recording the benefits that have arisen too.

    Keen largely argues against forces that are damaging traditional business models - models in which he has vested interests. He comes across as the scribe trying to argue that the printing press will doom us all to hell.

    Apologies for the rant again. Far from this being a deep personal issue, it's an issue for society and how we tell them about it.

    It's how we use the internet and its tools to improve life rather than telling people to make sure their children aren't exposed the horrors of wikipedia.

  4. Are the webbies utopians or are they simply monomaniacs, or do you think that comes to the same thing?

  5. I'm not with you on this Utopianism idea. Over the past 100 years in the UK there are now more of us, we live longer, we live in smaller households, we are better educated, the lives of women have changed dramatically, we live in a more ethnically diverse society and technological developments have opened the world up to us. Infant mortality rates were higher, and married women were unlikely to have a paid job and had no say in the political process.

    Among men, manual work was the norm and many children left school at the age of 12 to go out to work. Cars were rare and foreign holidays were only for the rich. Women have contributed greatly to the growth of office work and now feature among those in power.

    The mentality that Keen represents is that which would have opposed universal suffrage, public libraries, widening of higher education etc, etc. You are not necessarily a Utopian if you believe things can be done differently and better. But self-serving elitism of his type should be opposed - it's there to keep the rest of us at bay. Not nice to compare the anti-Keens to cultural Leninists.

  6. Each time we will fail a little better. That's good enough for me. What else is there to live for. I am reminded of Camus. Must read that chap again. He seemed like the genuine article.

  7. I don't know if there is a secret to wisdom, but I suspect a good place to start would be the rejection of utopianism, dystopianism and all other topianisms.

  8. There's no doubt that Utopianism exists in the mindset of certain Web 2.0 evangelists. Generally speaking these people spend their days communicating and working in the ebb & flow of social networks and virtual worlds - it is indeed akin to a priesthood. Do Benedictine monks think that the monastic orders have a future? Unfortunately, the priests of Web 2.0 are writing the stories that we consume online and it takes a fair bit of experience to take a step back and maintain a healthy dose of common sense.

    I love the fact the on the 'net anyone can say anything and anyone else can, potentially, read it. There's a lot of dross out there, but I'm sitting here having a dialogue with a respected journalist and an assortment of free-thinkers, failed intellectuals and oddballs that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Equally, dissenting voices can make themselves heard in a way that has never been possible before.
    The cream will rise to the top, the difficulty is in navigating the quagmire of indifferent & repetitive crap to get to the quality content. Which is where search and particularly social bookmarking comes in; Web 2.0 is inventing its own filtering mechanisms.

  9. It was interesting after last night's event to speak with audience members who, unlike me, had not already read the book and, like me, were not members of the utopian fringe. They found his arguments to be confusing and, at times, contradictory and were bemused when he appeared to agree with some of his more cogent critics.

    There is much in the book that can't be argued with, but to answer your question, I think he inflames some readers/listeners because he has a disconcerting tendency to add a sneery "elitist" aside to a point he's making. It doesn't help his cause.

    Having worked in consumer media industries, I know their demise has been accelerated by their ignoring of the internet and web 2.0 but it was certainly not initiated by it.

    As a blogger in a very focussed area, I know that web 2.0 has enriched my professional and social life, brought me into contact with myriad smart, succesful people whom I would have struggled to meet otherwise (and yes, we do meet - both one to one and in larger gatherings such as the anti-conference Interesting 2007 last week).

    I equally know that there is a huge amount of nonsense out there. The solution is not to decry it, except where it is pernicious, but to focus on ensuring that critical faculties are instilled into children at a very young age via the education system. It is the worldwide failing in that which is the real villain here.

  10. I'm very excited by the news that a giant fossilized penguin has been discovered in Peru. It stood 5 ft tall. Forget Web 2.0. This find is a true Signe and Mark that Linux is destined to take over the world. We could well see Utopians begin to mass in public and engage in strange celebrations. Lock your doors.

    In the meantime, I can't get excited about Web 2.0 since there's nothing about the internet now that suggests a fundamental change or break from how it started. Same stuff, just more sophisticated. And very limited. If I use Google to translate "storm in a teacup" into French, I get "tempĂȘte dans un verre d'eau". And if I use Google to translate those words back again I get "storm in water glass". New technologies, you see. Yeah, right.

    I'm more concerned by efforts from government and business to make the internet essentially one way in all important respects, an electronic hopper Strasbourg goose stylee. This is the deeper current, imho. Web 2.0 is just a cork on top of it.

  11. @John - I couldn't agree more. The book is on my reading list, but I'm reluctant for the same reason I was reluctant to read 'The God Delusion' - why have someone else take a position that I reached through subjective reason and experience and turn it into an irrational crusade? I'd rather, in true liberal fashion, hear the other side of the argument presented rationally.

    @ Mark - Long live strange, inaccessible technologies that only the adepts can understand - go Linux! But you're spot on about Web 2.0 being the same old stuff, only with better tech, but since the tech defines the medium (e.g. blogs depend on easy to use CMS & video on good bandwidth) the evolution will continue as tech advances. See Second Life for a prototype of the online future.

    It is possible to be a Web 2.0 evangelist and a realist too - and the more people are capable of reasoned criticism the more of these rare fish there will be.

  12. Bryan,

    I think you are reading too much into the reaction against Keen, which I take to be nothing more than a judgment that he is monumentally conceited jerk. He's ringing the dystopian alarm bell to draw attention to himself and to sell books. He's just another hack using the existing media-industrial complex for enrichment and self-promotion, while at the same time hypocritically dabbling in the same heretical new media he denounces.

    Old media will adapt quite well to the new order of things. And it's not like old media represented the summit of beneficial possibilities for media technology.

  13. RanOH explains it beautifully - I don't care about the nuances of the arguments, I just love the new interactions the technology enables at all levels. I had to Google Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. I read, I digested, I thought "bollocks". Does the web truly require a philosophy of its own?

  14. River of DeceitJune 26, 2007 12:37 pm

    "I'm not with you on this Utopianism idea. Over the past 100 years in the UK there are now more of us, we live longer, we live in smaller households, we are better educated, the lives of women have changed dramatically, we live in a more ethnically diverse society and technological developments have opened the world up to us. Infant mortality rates were higher, and married women were unlikely to have a paid job and had no say in the political process."

    Gray's point is, i think, that all these improvements could vanish quite easily over time and surely will. For instance we're soon to be running out of oil, what then?
    Burn coal? Back to wood?
    It's very similar to the Budddhist idea of impermanence, the world is always changing-regenerating, degenerating etc.
    I'm sure the Romans never thought the Roman empire would degenerate, but over time it had to.

  15. Though perhaps the degree to which the Lenins are utopians in the ordinary sense is oversated, & that they use the utopian dream to satisfy their will to power. They substitute the notion of religion being an opium with which to drug the people with the earthly utopian future as the opiate. SO they achieve their desired utopia which is the satisfaction of the lust for power in the present, but & here we are back in Legend of Grand Inquisitor territory, they are also future utopians- it just jbeing that they are not being very truthful in the reality of the future they aspire to.

  16. "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." - Orson Wells

  17. 'Gray's point is, i think, that all these improvements could vanish quite easily over time and surely will.' I agree they could vanish quite easily over time. I'm not so sure about the 'surely' though. Or maybe I've been watching too much Star Trek.

  18. Each time we will fail a little better.

    So far, so good, Neil. Let's hope that we continue to do so.

    Bryan, for some reason the phrase clamorous amateurism reminded me of the era that basically died out with the introduction of radio. Not that the amateurism was clamorous, but that it was widespread and generally appreciated. People entertained each other much more in those days and sought professional entertainment much less often. With the advent of radio and easy access to professional entertainers, fewer and fewer amateurs were willing to entertain their guests (or hosts). In a way, some of the things now found on the web harken back to that earlier era.

  19. "Utopianism is a recurrent delusion based on the idea - patently false to any rational observer - that history tells a story with a happy ending."

    There's no happy ending. In fact, there's no ending.

  20. Susan B., Stoppard lover,June 26, 2007 3:51 pm

    We may have better jobs and live longer, but people in the western world are more depressed than ever.

    Bryan, did you see Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" when it first played in London? He is spot on about Utopia -- it's a country whose shore we can never reach. The forces of history are random and chaotic; try though we do, our best efforts often wind up with completely unexpected consequences. (In Stoppard's plays, the idealistic nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries accidentally paved the way for Stalin -- certainly not an outcome they desired!)

    Forget the 'topias, as someone here said. What matters is the day, the second, the moment you're living in -- now. Dare to eat a peach. Kiss your wife. Smell the roses. Live now. There is no other time.

  21. Well, nice thread, guys. I haven't been able to respond having been massively otherwise engaged and I still am. Perhaps I am taking Keen's critics too seriously, but the idea that any technology can deliver nothing but goodness is intrinsically utopian. And, yes, Susan, Stoppard is on to all this - though I found Coast of Utopia a bit leaden to be honest - at least by his standards.

  22. “The forces of history are random and chaotic; try though we do, our best efforts often wind up with completely unexpected consequences.”

    Susan sounds as though she may have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness or his Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

  23. Susan B., encore,June 26, 2007 8:01 pm

    Hey, Dave -- I'm not reading that, but am now realizing David Mitchell probably intended it when he titled his last novel "Black Swan Green" (I'm always discovering some new brilliance he's inserted into a novel -- intertextuality so finely woven and subtle you get it on a subliminal level before you're conscious of what Genius Mitchell is about).

    Bryan, 'leaden' isn't the term I'd use for "Coast of Utopia" plays, but 'repetitive,' yes. In my essay on the plays, I said I felt the third part of the trilogy was redundant. It would have been much better to stop after the second installment, perhaps working the chagrin of Herzen, et al, into there. But American audiences loved it -- I guess you know he cleaned up at the Tony Awards. It really was the most (perhaps the only) intelligent play on Broadway this year.

    Herzen & Stoppard on the randomness of history, events:

    "History has no purpose! History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness."

    I'm all for the summer lightning....

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