Idolizing the Internet

Evgeny Morozove writes: There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.

Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet doesis only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.

They arrive at this reform agenda in a rather circuitous way. First, they assume that the Internet has a logic that is currently at work re-shaping a bevy of digital platforms and industries. Here is how Clay Shirky — the thinker who has done the most to popularize the McLuhanesque idea that the Internet has a coherent logic — explains why we are so worried about privacy and Facebook: “Facebook is . . . our current target for our worries about privacy in exactly the same way that the music industry obsessed about Napster [and] the newspaper industry obsessed about Craigslist, which is to say: the logic of Facebook, the logic that Facebook is exposing, is, in many ways, the logic that is implicit in the Internet itself; Facebook just happens to be its current corporate avatar.”

Once the elusive logic of the Internet has been located, it is not uncommon to see Internet-centrists move to deflate its actual novelty. Thus, Yochai Benkler, a Harvard legal scholar and an exquisite purveyor of Internet-centrism, can marvel at the worlds of Wikipedia, open-source software, and file-sharing — which he, too, takes to represent the logic of the Internet — and then proceed to weave them into a larger narrative about human nature. For Benkler, the Internet proves that humans are collaborative, well-meaning creatures, and that our political institutions, shaped in accordance with a much darker Hobbesian view of human nature, have never been adequate for facilitating meaningful social interaction.

Benkler does not view the Internet as a tool so much as an idea that proves (and disproves) philosophical theories about how the world works. The Internet, for him, reveals only what has been true — that humans love to collaborate — all along. Not surprisingly, the Internet occupies just a few chapters of Benkler’s most recent book; the rest is him deploying the latest research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and experimental economics to find the spirit of the Internet in the worlds of Toyota and lobster fishermen, of Spanish farmers and Obama’s 2008 campaign.

This attempt to rediscover reality in terms and categories of a supposedly coherent Internet culture is the crucial idea behind Internet-centrism. In defining what is knowable, on what terms, and to what purposes, Internet-centrism produces a novel epistemology of its own. Analytically, it is similar to anthropocentrism — only it worships a different deity. Most adherents of Internet-centrism have traditionally kept quiet about their quasi-religion. But with the publication of Steven Johnson’s  Future Perfect, they finally have a briskly written manifesto that distills all the major tenets of their worldview — and adds quite a few blinkers of its own. [Continue reading…]

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