Monday, June 09, 2008

The Internet and Its Discontents — Essay by Michael Pastore

Portrait of Goethe

The Internet and Its Discontents

“The unexamined online life is not worth living.”

(c) 2008 by Michael Pastore

"Remember to live!” was the motto of the German genius Goethe. What strange advice! At first glance it seems uselessly trite, almost like saying “Remember to breathe”. How could we possibly forget? …

Yet we do forget. And our most perceptive authors are always trying to remind us.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (in Ethan Brand ) describes a man who became a devil “the moment that his moral nature had ceased to keep pace with his intellect.” Anton Chekhov (in his story The Man In A Case) explains why men miss the joy in life: “All sorts of things are done in the provinces through boredom, all sorts of unnecessary and nonsensical things! And that is because what is necessary is not done at all.” And I.B. Singer’s hermit-scholar, Dr. Fischelson (in The Spinoza of Market Street), in his devotion to the study of the philosopher Spinoza, seeks an abstruse world within, and thereby isolates himself from all but the most trivial human contact.

Long before our modern age — of television, computers, computer games, and the Internet — it was possible to ignore or to forget our humanness. The powerful seductions of Technology make it even easier to forget.

Does the Net that snares so many of our waking hours make us more human, or less? … Invented around 1972, at the end of the American counterculture, the Internet, and its most prominent brain-child, the World Wide Web (born in 1989), have been hailed — and rightfully so — as the greatest communication tools since the printing press. Despite its youth and inexperience, the Internet has already bestowed a cornucopia of benefits and blessings on humankind. These boons affect almost everyone, not merely the point-and-clique generation — who can always be found gaping at some kind of screen — surfing, texting, sexting, twittering and plurking.

Let us count the ways the Internet improves our lives.

  1. Human rights are protected, and lives are saved. A woman raped in Pakistan, who surely would have been murdered for her crime of being a rape victim, is shielded from further violence and persecution, when the world hears and responds to her story via the Web.
  2. Internet communities facilitate friendships and romance. A prospective spouse or hookup can quickly be found via the Internet, in spite of the quip of one cynical critic: “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
  3. Scientific and scholarly research flourishes via long-distance collaboration.
  4. Personal publishing proliferates: just when it seemed as if the crushing power of big print publishing would drown us under commercial propaganda, the Internet arose to give individuals a still small voice.
  5. Strange cyberbedfellows unite for action. We can easily connect with like-minded individuals, and mobilize to do good work for the environment, or social and political causes and campaigns.
  6. The Internet — along with YouTube, its wildest child — keeps our politicians and public servants a little less dishonest. YouTube may prove to be a terrific deterrent as high-ranking officials realize a simple truth of the digital age, first coined by Uncle Remus: “You can hide de fire, but what you gonna do wid de smoke?”
  7. Email — faster than a letter, cheaper than a phone call, able to alert you to new messages with a bingle sound — allows us to effortlessly contact family and friends.
  8. Terabytes of information are accessible to almost everyone.
  9. The environment can be observed. One game preserve in China is completely monitored by cameras, so that its Giant Pandas can be watched on a website, by a small number of human staff — and experts in many locations — responsible for their survival.
  10. Mundane tasks, such as shopping and bill-paying, are simplified — they consume fewer resources and less time.
The perils of using the Internet are no less tremendous than its benefits. A hacker with a laptop and Internet connection, sitting on a curb in Eastarmpit, Marzipanistan, could attack and devastate computer systems in any major city worldwide. … The heartbreak of psoriasis is nothing compared with the anxiety of malware — insidious invaders of your home computer, known in the jargon as worms, viruses, Trojan horses, spyware, rootkits, backdoors, botnets, keystroke loggers, dialers, and adware. … Spam accounts for more than 90% of all email messages; and pornography swallows more than 70% of the entire World Wide Web. … Anxiety caused by Information Overload — and the problems of how to keep up with technology and manage the assault of our exponentially-growing tsunami of information — is a problem that can only be addressed by acquiring more information. … If you fall for a phishing scheme you could lose your life savings: the website has estimated that one of these frauds, the family of variegated Nigerian email scams, dupes people out of 200 million dollars per year. … Last year more than 8.1 million Americans were victims of identity theft. … With help from the Internet, child abusers lure naive children to fatal meetings. … Addictive behaviors (“I checked my email 20 times today, but I can stop any time.”) are easy to fall into, and difficult to heal.

Fortunately, using caution, knowledge, and uncommon sense, we can avoid (or minimize the effects of) these scourges of the Information Age. They are clear and present dangers; and it’s not too difficult to find reliable websites, savvy commentators, and free software that may keep us relatively free from cyberharm. The Firefox browser extension ‘NoScript’ extension for the Firefox browser) prevents security vulnerabilities caused by scripts. PC users can tap the collective knowledge of a forum called TechGuy (, where experts offer detailed and step-by-step diagnoses and advice. Mac users can access various forums, or — for those of us with world enough and time — learn the art of enhancing security (known as “hardening” your computer) by reading Apple’s newly released PDF security guide, only 240 pages long. [ ].

The Information Revolution giveth, and the Information Revolution taketh away: should we call the game a stalemate or a draw? … Unfortunately, there is another set of dangers, far more subtle and elusive than the ones mentioned above. These days — despite thousands of books, millions of videos, and countless web pages dedicated to computer-related “how-to’s” and “how to avoids” and "what’s the latest-best-coolest must-have gadgets and gizmos?" — there are only a handful of critics who dare to ask “why?”, “what’s it doing to us?’ and “should we?”. Neil Postman, who died in 2003, is one of the enlightened few. His 1992 book on this theme is Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture To Technology. Postman’s book is brilliant gem with one flaw only: it was published before the colossal expansion of the Web. What we need is a new book to explore the pros and cons of the new technologies.

book cover Against the Machines

Lee Siegel has written it. The book is called Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In a pyrotechnic series of profound questions and sharp insights, Siegel’s book aims its criticisms at the dark heart of Internet, at the people who use it unquestioningly, and at the makers who, with all the energy of high-school cheerleaders, ceaselessly promote it. [Note: Siegel’s book should not be confused with another book with the same title, written in 2004, by Nicols Fox: Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives.]

Before examining Siegel’s new book, let’s step back to examine some bits from Neil Postman, and his skeptical predecessors. In Technopoly, Postman argues that civilization has moved through various stages, and that culture may be categorized into three varieties: tool-users, Technocracies, and Technopolies. (One cannot imagine what this author would be saying about a Postmanic phase beyond Technopoly, Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity”, where machines are light-years more intelligent than human beings, human beings will be required to have brain implants to continuously access the Internet, and change happens so fast that nobody can understand it.). Until the 17th century, all cultures on our planet were “tool-using cultures” — the tools used by these cultures never interfered with belief systems or ideology. Some time in the 18th century (perhaps in 1765 with the steam engine, or in 1776 with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations) we find the emergence of technocracies, cultures in which the tools attack the culture: they intrude upon and seek to dominate every facet of the culture including “tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion.” In the early part of the 20th century, the United States became the world’s first Technopoly. What is a Technopoly? … Technopoly is a culture dominated in all aspects by technique and technology. In Technopoly, Information is king, or rather, emperor. “One way of defining Technopoly, then,” writes Postman, “is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose. The effort is mostly doomed to failure.”

In an interview with Brian Lamb, Postman wonders aloud why Technopoly is dangerous. He says that the job of the academic is to “… try to raise the questions of what’s to become of us if we lose a sense of spirituality. If we devote all of our resources and our psychic energies to making bigger and better machinery and designing better techniques, will we become less human in some sort of traditional way of defining that?”

About information in particular, Postman issues this dire warning: “The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is not a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, and have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

Technology is never neutral: it transforms almost every aspect of our culture. Some critics go even further, to insist that technology changes essential aspects of the human self. Hear Thomas Carlyle, more than 150 years ago: “ … let us observe how the mechanical genius of our time has diffused itself into quite other provinces. Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. … These things, which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”

Modern Times film: stuck in the gears

Charlie Chaplin warned us, too, with the magic of his humble and hilarious style. In
the 1936 film Modern Times, the tramp-hero is gainfully employed in a factory. He becomes caught in giant gears; he is fed by an experimental feeding machine that saves time for the management as it causes immense unpleasantness for the workers; and by lunchtime, he cannot prevent his body from jerking helplessly with the same motions he has performed all throughout his laborious working morning. Renewal is one of film's main motifs. A few moments later we are told: "Cured of a nervous breakdown but without a job, he leaves the hospital to start anew."

What Chaplin makes us laugh about in pictures, Aldous Huxley expresses with equal force in words: “In the process of creating ugliness and multiplying monotony, machines had destroyed the old order and were turning the men and women who tended them into brutes and automata.”

The road to hell is paved with good inventions. Our passionate focus on technology has perhaps distracted us from other, more essential things. I do not believe that all technology dehumanizes us, or that life without technology (or, with less-advanced technologies) necessarily creates more enlightened persons. Indeed, in 1932 (7 years before television, and the same year that Huxley published his dystopian comic novel, Brave New World), Sigmund Freud began his classic Civilization and Its Discontents, with the admission that he had never in his life felt that “oceanic feeling” — the sense of wonder, awe, oneness with the universe. Information is not knowledge; knowledge is not wisdom. Neil Postman argues that life in a Technopoly, more than any other time in human history, reduces our opportunities for becoming fully human.

I first discovered Lee Siegel’s work via video on YouTube, where Siegel is seen at the Google headquarters talking about his book. On this tape (which is well worth watching), Siegel appears soft-spoken and serious; but the book is better, and reading Siegel’s book gives us a much deeper portrait of the man and his ideas. In the book, Siegel is often funny, in fact, he can be laugh-out-loud funny, as when he compares shopping for a watch on eBay, with searching for a woman on the website, Why does Lee Siegel refuse to join the fan club that worships the Internet? … Sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop, Siegel notices a subtle shift in the way he (and other people) interact with one another. In the past, people were more likely to look at people and to start a conversation; whereas today, everyone is absorbed in the virtual world they access through their laptops. Siegel says that the Internet encourages isolation, loneliness, alienated personalities, and what Christopher Lasch has called “the culture of narcissism.” One might speculate that greater isolation promotes greater individuality: but Siegel says that the opposite is true: the Internet promotes mass thinking. He writes: “Fewer and fewer people are doing their own thing. They are cautiously and calculatingly imitating someone or something else.” … In arguing that the Internet rewards not quality, but popularity, Siegel gives us this gem: “You must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like anyone else.”

The Internet makes us more isolated, and discourages the ability to “think different”. That is just the tip of the melted iceberg of Siegel’s comprehensive critique. The Internet allows “malicious anonymity”, which harms democratic principles and values. In its focus on “me”, the Net encourages blathering blogs, mixed-up mashups, and puerile videos, produced by mass-minded amateur-artists with no sense of the distinction between superficial self-expression and genuine art.

Corroborating Postman, Siegel states that the Internet gives us too much information. And that the Net is dominated by commerce and commercial interests. The ancient Greeks believed that leisure time was important, because it would naturally be used for learning and self-development. Siegel laments that even our leisure time has been appropriated: “The Internet transvalues all experiences into economic experiences.”
In February, I wrote an open letter to Apple computer mogul Steve Jobs. Jobs had recently been speaking about a product named Kindle, a new ebook reader. Jobs said:

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

And this is a perfect example of Technopoly at its worst. Because people aren’t reading anymore, Jobs will develop products that people will use. Had he been thinking differently, he might have explained the value of reading, and vowed a way to use technology to encourage us to read the most significant books.

In Lee Siegel’s new book, Against the Machine, Steve Jobs is not mentioned at all. Courageously, Siegel criticizes many other giants of the hi-tech industry, including Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Bill Gates, Alvin Toffler, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, Lawrence Lessig, and Tim O’Reilly. Siegel implies that we should question the objectivity of these tech titans, whose bread and butter burgeons as the worship of technology spreads.

Indeed, I have observed that we are not only encouraged and seduced to consume technology and information, we are threatened and shamed. A commercial for the Microsoft search engine features a young woman hiding in a janitor’s closet, terrified to join her co-workers at the office water cooler. The co-workers are described as “a group of sharks” who are up on “all the latest headlines and celebrity gossip.” But this poor woman has not yet read her Microsofted news today, so she must shamefully hide herself away. It all ends with a guitarist cheerfully strumming and singing the theme song: “Noone wants to look dumb.” … Apparently this bullying tactic is not working: Microsoft recently announced that they would pay us when we use their search engine to shop.

Siegel’s book is refreshingly smart; it questions Internet technology with the questions that matter most. I could quibble with Siegel’s claim that the Internet give us nothing new, and only makes things more convenient. I could argue for a rounder portrait of O’Reilly and Lessig: these two brilliant men have done extraordinarily good work in moving society toward open source software, technological literacy, sanity about copyright, and a movement known as “free culture”. And I might strongly disagree with Siegel’s slant on web publishing: to me (and to Joseph Epstein and Andre Schriffin), traditional print publishing is dysfunctional because the commercial interests of print publishing have crushed the Perkinsesque integrity in culture and in art. From my perspective, Web publishing — all these blogs and books and videos — gives people a voice — for the first time in history — to directly challenge the traditional (and the commercial) view of things. These mass voices are often crude, foolish and unartistic. Yet there may be enormous therapeutic value in the process of personal expression. And there are diamonds in the coal-heap: some of these voices are profoundly honest and genuinely original.

These disagreements are mere quibbles: the critic is always looking for the fleas in the lion’s mane. From page first to last, Siegel’s book captivated me, and changed the way I see the Internet.

Photo copyright by Epublishers Weekly: Books Avalanche

We are drowning in information, but it could be that the alarm system is just beginning to resound. A May 16 (2008) article in “The Economist”, From Literacy to Digiracy: Will Reading and Writing Remain Important?, notes that “Only one in three [American] children left high school able to read proficiently.” In the current issue of the magazine Atlantic (July/August 2008) an essay by Nicholas Carr (Is Google Making Us Stupid? — What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains), argues that we are losing the ability to read deeply. And even our American literature — that barometer of cultural sanity and health — might at last be waking from its splendiferous triteness and its slumberous snore. As the Green movement grows, we are seeing a renewal in interest in the great works of Henry David Thoreau. And Thoreau Bound, a recent Utopian comic novel about how we might live more simply-wisely-lovingly, begins with a scathing parody of cybersex, and a protagonist who insists: “The downloaded dumpling cannot take one’s hunger away.”

Our culture is virtually lost, whirling into the future without a plan. The way home is to discover a middle ground between the Luddites and the technological utopians. We are now living in the era of Web 2.0, characterized by unabashable egoism and unprecedented collaboration, made of (according to the gospel of Wikipedia) “web-based communities and hosted services, such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies. ” We need to leapfrog toward Web 3.0, which will keep the valuable facets of our current Web, promote true art and courteous debate, and change the dehumanizing aspects of Internet use. Web 3.0 will have a human face. It will have nothing to do with inventions, and everything to do with our inner lives. It would be a sustainable Information Revolution, which begins with an expansion of personal consciousness, and then continues with meaningful actions that transform the world. Web 3.0’s greatest service to us will be paradoxically simple: it will be a Web that encourages people to spend less time in front of computers and television screens, and to give more life to the natural world, to artistic creation, and to other human beings.

To live wisely and well, to become fully human has never been easy. Hawthorne’s protagonist, Ethan Brand, acquired vast knowledge, but soon perished when he shockingly grasped what he had become in the pursuit of his vacuous quest. Chekhov’s man in a case failed to escape his self-made shell. Isaac Singer’s lonely scholar, Dr. Fischelson fared better: luck, desperation, and a simple woman led him a to new and more meaningful life.

The unexamined online life is not worth living. What we cannot find in caring relationships with other persons, we will never find through the medium of interconnected machines. Goethe, despite his enlightened culture at Weimar — ingeniously designed to nourish its citizens, and promote scientific discoveries and all the arts — needed to constantly remind himself about the simplest things. Remember to live.

Modern Times, walking into sunrise

Michael Pastore is the Editorial Director of Epublishers Weekly, and the the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming The Tao of Information: How to Simplify Your Life, Keep up with Technology, and Harvest the Internet’s Essential Facts and Ideas in 30 Minutes a Day. (Zorba Press, Spring 2009).

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