Did You Know That The Web Is A Plot By A Bunch Of California Cultists To Destroy Your Life? The Sunday Times Tells Me So…
from the uh-what-now? dept
It really is bizarre that nearly every handwaving critique of how “evil” the internet is, from the point of view of elitists who worry about the loss of the old gatekeepers, seems to make every single mistake it accuses the “internet generation” of making. For example, it’s difficult to catalog just how many things Bryan Appleyard gets factually wrong in his Sunday Times piece all about how evil the internet is and how it was designed by a bunch of California cultists who are trying to destroy all that is good in the world. What’s amazing, for such an elitist article that claims that professionals do news better and that the internet is destroying the ability for the press to do journalism properly, is that he would make a factual error in almost every sentence. It’s really stunning, actually.
Late in the piece he notes that “this article — it always happens — will be sneered at all over the web by people who cannot think for themselves because they are blindly faithful to the idea that the web is the future, all of it.” Ok, fine. Let’s not sneer, and let’s actually think for ourselves… and how about we correct some of Mr. Appleyard’s errors — just for the fun of it?
The web is in trouble. Last week craigslist, a vast classified-ads site, had to abandon its “erotic services” category because of claims that it was an “online brothel” being used by sexual predators.
Oops. Wrong. First of all, it didn’t “have” to do anything. The law (section 230 of the CDA for Mr. Appleyard, and if he wants the relevant cases we can point those out too — though, this is the sort of stuff we thought the professionals were supposed to look up themselves) is quite clear that Craigslist is protected and it didn’t have to do anything. It chose to make a change to the way it handled such ads, but Mr. Appleyard even gets the facts wrong there, in claiming it “abandoned” the category. It did not. It simply moved it to a new area called “adult services,” which now has its ads pre-monitored as opposed to post-monitored as before.
And in France L’Oreal discovered eBay could not be forced to stop selling cheap knock-offs of its products.
Oops. Wrong. A French court ruled that eBay was not liable for users selling counterfeit L’Oreal goods (the same way US and Belgian courts have ruled as well). It’s not eBay selling the goods. eBay is just the tool and the platform. It’s users who sell to each other. And they are still breaking the law. All the court case said was that L’Oreal should have to go after those individuals, rather than forcing eBay to do so. This is common sense, in the same way that we ticket the driver of a speeding car, rather than Ford for making a car that can speed.
After British villages rose up against the intrusion of Google’s Street View, Greece has banned the mobile camera cars that put pictures of people’s homes and streets on the internet
Oops. Wrong. While British villagers who didn’t quite understand how Street View worked got quite upset about it — that part is true — their protest went nowhere. The UK’s privacy watchdog actually took the time to understand what Google was doing (something Appleyard apparently did not) and said it was fine. As for Greece, it did not ban the camera cars. It simply put the project on hold while it gets more info. That seems like a rather pertinent detail. Oh, and the wonderful professional mainstream media that Appleyard is such a big fan of? It reposted all the embarrassing images that Google took down. So, Google was quick to remove those images, but it was the professional media that actually got them attention. Based on Appelyard’s reasoning above, concerning both Craigslist and the L’Oreal/eBay case, the mainstream press is actually guilty of intruding on people’s privacy.
Privacy campaigners fear the power of Google and the online ad company Phorm to gather and exploit personal information. They invade your computer, monitor your web-browsing and buying, check where you are and then bombard you with targeted hard sells.
Oops. Wrong. While there are some fears (some more reasonable than others) about Phorm and Google, to lump the two together is quite misleading. The two companies are amazingly different in how they work — and it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that either “gathers and exploits” personal info, though we’ll grant that for the time being. The thing that neither of them do, however, is “bombard you with targeted hard sells.” In fact, whether you like what either company is doing, the whole point of their targeted advertising is to offer up soft sells that are more likely to get attention, rather than hard sells.
Those are the first two paragraphs alone. From there, he charges that a group of Californians created Web 2.0 as a “cult,” in partnership with Google, who somehow proactively monitors everything you do (ignoring, of course, the fact that you have to actually use Google’s services for it to monitor anything). Then he complains that free stuff is available online, along with the standard complaints about how he doesn’t like social networks and he hates the fact that many people use the web to shop? Why? That’s not really explained. The best he can come up with is quoting some guy who insists the internet is a passing fad:
“The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passe . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”
The evidence for this? Well, that’s shaky and non-existent. The evidence against it? Well, I’d say there’s a ton. But we’ll just start with the obvious one: television, radio and newspapers were all broadcast forms of communication — one to many. The internet is many to many (and one to one, and one to many). To claim that it’s basically the same is like claiming that automobiles are just faster horses.
One great promise of web 2.0 was that it would lead to a post-industrial world in which everything was dematerialised into a shimmer of electrons. But last year’s oil price shock and this year’s recession, not to mention every year’s looming eco-catastrophe, show that we are still utterly dependent on the heavy things of the old economy.
This is just great. Appleyard claims what “the promise” of web 2.0 is, without any citation to back that up. I don’t know anyone who ever claimed that the point of “web 2.0” was to “dematerialize” everything into electrons. In fact, many of us have focused on how physical things still matter quite a bit. But, if you’re trying to set up the creators of modern web services as evil cultists, you may as well set up a total straw man about what they’re trying to do. Because, we all know that the “professional press” never makes stuff up like all those crazy amateurs do.
So what, if not everything, will the web change? The key feature of web 2.0 that is currently driving change is its intense focus on the individual.
That’s funny. I could have sworn we were just reading about how the backers of the web were trying to make everything “communal” with all this sharing and “amateur empowerment” and such. And now we’re told that web 2.0 is about individualism? Wasn’t Appleyard just sneering at all those community sites like Facebook and Twitter — which are the very opposite of an intense focus on the individual?
Blogging, tweeting and Facebooking all give the individual the unprecedented opportunity to blather to the entire world.
Wait, so communicating with others is all about individualism? I’m confused…
The first objection to this is that it destroys institutions and structures that can do so much more than the individual.
What is this “it” that destroys institutions and structures that can do so much for the individual? Web 2.0? How is “it” destroying anything? “It” is not doing anything at all. However, managers of those institutions who failed to adapt to a new marketplace (and, in the case of newspapers bet the farm on raising way more money than they could ever pay back) certainly had a lot to do with destroying institutions. But, do we see any analysis of that? Of course not.
The Wall Street Journal carried an analysis that is still the best thing I have seen on the subject. But the story needed half a dozen qualified financial journalists to put it together, and masses of research that no lonely blogger could possibly do . . . This throws into relief the intractable fact that the liberty which the web offers to the individual voice is also a restriction on group effort.
Fair enough. Though, I’ll say that by far the best analysis I got of the financial crisis came from a series of different blogs (mainly by economists) that understood the issue at a far deeper level than anything I read in the Wall Street Journal. And, the great thing was that many of them did work together. They used those awful “individualistic” tools like blogging, Twitter and Facebook to connect and talk and come out with a much more interesting analysis.
Institutions — publishers, newspapers, museums, universities, schools — exist precisely because they can do more than individuals. If web 2.0 flattens everything to the level of whim and self-actualisation, then it will have done more harm than good.
I’m still quite confused by this odd, and totally unsupported theory, that web 2.0 somehow breaks everything down to the individual. In fact, most of us have seen the opposite. The rise of useful communication tools actually make it much easier to create those sorts of necessary institutions on the fly, in a way that’s a lot more flexible, meaningful, relevant and useful than the old stodgy organizational structures of the past.
A further objection to the cult’s radical individualism is that it doesn’t have the intended hyper-democratic consequences. Wikipedia, for example, has tackled inaccuracy and subversion by introducing forms of authority and control that would seem to be anathema to its founding ideals.
Note that Appleyard does not explain what those “founding ideals” are, or how the minor changes to the system over time go against them or somehow prove “radical individualism” (which is still something Appleyard seems to have made up whole cloth) to be wrong.
Bloggery is forming itself into big, institutionalised aggregators such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, and remains utterly parasitic on the mainstream media it affects to despise.
Um… wait. Weren’t we just being told a single paragraph ago that blogs were the antithesis of institutions? I mean… it was right there. And now, suddenly, blogs are evil because they’re institutions? I’m confused again. And I’m curious how sending sites more traffic is “parasitic,” but we’ve discussed this before.
Even Twitter is already coming to be dominated by conventional, non-web-based celebrity — Oprah Winfrey in the US and Stephen Fry over here.
Dominated. Mr. Appleyard, you don’t have to follow them. I follow neither Oprah nor Fry, and Twitter works just great. I see no domination.
The slightly more sinister aspect of this is that excessive individualism leads with astonishing rapidity to slavish conformity. The banking crisis may not have been caused by the internet but it was certainly fuelled by the way connectivity and speed created a market in which everybody was gripped by the hysteria of the herd.
Now there’s a new one. This one comes just three paragraphs after Appleyard tells us that the WSJ had a great analysis of why the financial crisis happened — though, it appears Appleyard didn’t bother to read it. Nor has he apparently read any history of bubbles or mass hysteria. The market crash of 1929? Mass hysteria. Must have been caused by the internet. I’m sure the Dutch tulip craze was caused by the same. There couldn’t have been any herd mentality-based bubbles prior to the internet, could there? I’m sure the Sunday Times has a big professional research department (you know, the sort of institutional resources that individualistic bloggers can’t afford). Perhaps next time, Appleyard should try using it.
Or there is the weird phenomenon of flash mobs. People agree by text message or tweet to assemble in one place and, suddenly, do so. This was originally intended as a joke or art piece designed to demonstrate sheep-like conformity, but it rapidly became an aspect of cultish libertarianism. It doesn’t work. Flash mobs in Russia are simply prevented by cutting off mobile-phone coverage. Old-world politics is more powerful than the web.
Wait, because Russian police cut off mobile phone coverage to stop a flash mob, the whole concept of flash mobs is dead? Again, I’m having trouble seeing how that makes any sense.
And, finally, the everything-free, massively deflationary effects of the web may be over. Rupert Murdoch, head of The Sunday Times’s parent company, has said he is thinking of charging for online versions of his papers. The hard fact that somebody, somehow, has to pay for all this is breaking into web heaven.
I like how just the fact that Murdoch is thinking about charging for the news means that the “deflationary effects of the web may be over.” Got any data to back that up? Or doesn’t the professional press do that sort of thing? Finally, we’ve already dispensed with the myth that the news isn’t paid for. You would think that such a professional would know that subscriptions have almost never paid for the news. Far be it from us, the mere individualistic, cultish amateurs, to actually look at the actual data and point out that subscriptions have almost never even covered the cost of printing and delivery. Journalism has always been paid for by advertising, and just because the content is free online, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been paid for.
I doubt Mr. Appleyard will read this. After all, the web is full of such dangers, and any attempt to correct his factual errors is obviously coming from just another individualistic cultist who cannot think for himself.