Friday, July 23, 2010

Conservative critique of Web 2.0

Will critique of web 2.0 be the thing to revitialize conservative thought, lead it out of "epistemic closure" and bring it new adherents and fresh lines of inquiry? Can it replenish tired themes of elitism?

building from this column I wrote a few months ago.

This essay by Geert Lovink runs down some of the big names.

1. Andrew Keen, Cult of the Amateur. Lovink's summary:
In this state of "digital Darwinism" only the loudest and most opinionated voices survive. What Web 2.0 does is "decimate the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers".
At stake is the loss of elite tastemakers to guide the plebes. In their absence, the plebes create a vulgar culture of disposable junk memes -- the ROFL culture that Rob Walker recently surveyed. This conservative critique hinges on the idea of preserving the cultural capital of properly trained "experts" in aesthetics, who are in fact ideologists preserving a particular status hierarchy expressed through highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, etc., as Bourdieu argued.

2. Nicholas Carr. In Lovink's view, Carr indicates a "neurological turn" in conservative tech criticism, rooting the critique in the damaging effects technology has on the brain rather than in the damaging effects it has on the existing distribution of prestige. I'm sympathetic to parts of this:
"With the Internet stressing speed, we become the Web's neurons: "The more links we click, pages we view, and transactions we make, the more intelligence the Web makes, the more economic value it gains, and the more profit it throws off."
I see this as less a matter of neurology than a culturally imposed imperative that suits capital -- as the way Carr phrases it here stresses. Elsewhere he shifts the emphasis to empirical studies of brain function. But these are ambiguous. I find it preferable to start from the idea that it's ideological pressure that accelerates our consumption of media and shrinks our attention span, not the brain succumbing to a neuroplasticity disaster. Technology is innocent, but the consumer-capitalist context in which we have deployed it has made it an instrument of evil.

Carr's critique is conservative insofar as it urges caution, the imposition of barriers to the open development and deployment of technology that the market has thus far supported, because presumably the way tech has infiltrated lives already has enfeebled consumers and made them unable to act in their own interests against the proliferation of gadgets and the mediatization of everyday life. He rejects the techno-positivist position that all participation in digital culture is good (i.e. Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody), and evokes a tradition of regarding the plebes as incapable of such participation -- that it is harmful for them to suddenly become democratized culturally, if you want to call it that. The neuroplasticity critique seems to have that fear at its root -- people are damaged by too much freedom, too much access, too much information.

But the critique is not merely antidemocratic. It seeks to protect privacy and to preserve the system of work as it had existed in the pre-biopolitical era (to use the Negri/Hardt jargon). It becomes a conservative impulse to want to protect the integrity of the individual by making him willfully obscure, out of the networked system designed to stimulate dreams of fame and social relevance but that ultimately imposes conformity and "digital sharecropping" instead. Better to be detached from the obsession with real-time presence management and information saturation, and achieve a Thoreau-like calm and ability to penetrate meditatively into the deep, personal meaning of things. The personal must be protected through real privacy, a refusal of the cloud, and of Web 2.0. Again, the quintessential conservative gesture is to stand athwart and say no to something that already exists and has momentum in some unapproved direction. Usually the momentum can't be stopped, and the critique offers only what consolation comes from the righteous narcissism of the noble lost cause.

3. Frank Schirrmacher, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Schirrmacher also worries about the pressure of information overload -- "I exhaustion", the sensory overload of the informavore. This leads to the end of independent thought as reliance on collaborative filters and automated filters grows and the brain gets fatigued by constant information barrage. Predictive technologies will erode free will and make us robots programmed by the data-driven inferences made on the basis of our online behavior. Schirrmacher: "Germany still has a very strong anti-technology movement, which is quite interesting insofar as you can't really say it's left-wing or right-wing. As you know, very right-wing people, in German history especially, were very anti-technology." Anti-technology blurs political lines in history generally: Luddites and Amish.

See also:

4. Jaron Lanier. He argues for "pattern exhaustion" setting in among crowdsourced cultural producers and tries to make the case for the necessity of individual genius on the mountain top, well compensated and motivated by intellectual property rights, of course.

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