Three Schools of Thought on the Internet

Adam Gopnik has a survey in this week’s New Yorker running down a few of the recent books about the internet and divides them into three schools of thought:

  1. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves.
  2. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t.
  3. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Seeing the title of this blog is everwas, I think you know where I come in. The arrival of the internet and hopes and fears that we collectively foist upon this new technology is something we’ve seen before.

Commuters in Tokyo, Absorbed in the Cell Phones

The printing press, the telephone, the radio, the television, the internet, and now the cell phone. Each successive wave of communications technology push and pulls our society to new behaviors. I read somewhere when the telephone was first introduced, no one knew how to start a conversation with the person on the other end of the line. For a few years, “Ahoy!” was the commonly adopted opener, choosing to go with nautical terminology maybe to acknowledge the fact that we were all sailing into new waters together.

Eventually we adopt and assimilate the new technology into our daily life much like the body develops an immunity to a new virus. We grow stronger and learn to control our tools rather than let them control us. What was once shiny and new becomes less so. Gopnik continues to draw the arc of history,

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Further Reading (I’ve added a few books of my own, feel free to suggest more in the comments):

Adam Gopnik, How the Internet Gets Inside Us, The New Yorker

Never-Betters

Better-Nevers

Ever-Wasers

3 Replies to “Three Schools of Thought on the Internet”

  1. great post.

    “I read somewhere when the telephone was first introduced, no one knew how to start a conversation with the person on the other end of the line.”

    With amount of time people are spending online, on video games and TV, my worry is soon no one would know how to start a conversation with a person face to face. We will speak in 140 char sentences and respond with “Like”.

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