- Tue, March 15 2011
- Filed under: Social networking and web 2.0
“The Information: How the Internet gets inside us” is the title of a recent Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker, outlining three schools of thoughts on the rise of the Internet:
1. The “Never-Betters” - This is the perspective of people like Clay Shirky. (You can hear his thinking here via Network for Good!) Gopnik exaggerates this school of thought to make it distinct—he says it holds 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.” It’s full of potential, so embrace it.
2. The “Better-Nevers” - These folks wish the Internet never happened and that the world we’re leaving behind is better than the one upon us. This is the school of thought of people like Nicolas Carr and Sherry Turkle, and it holds that our text-messaging, iPhone-wielding selves are losing the ability to focus and do deeper reflective thought. The world is worse off as a result.
3. The “Ever-Wasers” - These folks believe there’s nothing new under the sun. They believe “a sense of vertiginous overload is the central experience of modernity,” and that we’ve been experiencing information overload since the later Middle Ages. And that we’ve been complaining ever since that our attention is being fractured. It’s inevitable, so accept it.
Gopnik is ambivalent in his own position. He loves the potential of technology, but his heart seems with the Better-Nevers. He sees the wraparound presence of technology as a problem, in the way it turns our inner life inside out. We live in world of anonymous rants and darker obsessions that can be freely pursued online, he says:
“The monstrous music that runs through our inner minds is now played out loud. A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightfully testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your own self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud. It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machines that oppresses us.”
Very provocative, and a fascinating inversion of the way I typically think of my relationship to technology. But I’m not entirely with Gopnik. I suppose I’m more of a Never-Better. While I sometimes experience the embrace of technology as so all-encompassing as to drown out reflective thought, it often is the very medium that enables reflective thought, when used right. Blogging forces me to not just read Gopnik’s article, but to grapple with its meaning and my own opinion of it. I am not a New Yorker writer, sadly, but I can post my reflections here and you can react. That is a more profound experience than reading the magazine in a quiet room and then placing it in the recycling bin.
Gopnik concludes his article with the thought that, “Our thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them… Toast, as every breakfaster knows, isn’t really about the quality of the bread or how it’s sliced or the toaster. For man cannot live by toast alone. It’s about the butter.” He means the content of our ideas—the butter—is more valuable than the delivery vehicle —the toast— that carries them.
Well - exactly. But I find technology, while it gives reign to our darker instincts, also gives reign to creativity in the public sphere. We get more vehicles for our butter - and consume the butter in a community, rather than alone at the kitchen table. I’d rather have that than nothing. Call me a Never-Better, I suppose.