barbarians at the gate

I read a lot of articles on the effect of new media on culture and society. One of the best I’ve read in a while turned up this week at The New Yorker, and I wanted to shares some highlights from it.

In ‘The Information: How the Internet gets inside us’, Adam Gopnik offers a clear-sighted analysis of the current state of the debate. The article is a useful re-cap of where the main strategic positions are, and I particularly like his categorisations of the main contributors as either ‘Never-Betters’, ‘Better-Nevers’, or ‘Ever-Wasers’. He defines these groups as follows:

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. 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. 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.

Prominent Never-Betters include Clay Shirky and John Tooby. Better-Nevers with recent publications are Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), William Powers, (Hamlet’s BlackBerry) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together).

Ann Blair is cited as the ‘most ambitious’ of the Ever-Wasers. Gopnik reviews the main points in her recent book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, which examines the techniques through which earlier generations of scholars, from the middle ages onwards, complained about and dealt with their own information overload. It sounds interesting and is now on my ‘to read’ list.

Gopnik finds that his hopes rest with the Never-Betters, his head with the Ever-Wasers and his heart with the Better-Nevers. The arguments of the latter also prompt the greatest fear, because if we become complacent Ever-Wasers we could end up overrun before we know it. Gopnik provides this parable to explain the point:

“Oh, they always say that about the barbarians, but every generation has its barbarians, and every generation assimilates them,” one Roman reassured another when the Vandals were at the gates, and next thing you knew there wasn’t a hot bath or a good book for another thousand years.

I have to say that I find the Better-Nevers much less appealing than Gopnik, and for me the Better-Nevers are more endearing, if only because they offer hope rather than endless prophecies of doom  ­̶  but that’s probably more about my natural optimism and experiences as a ‘digital native’ than any objective reaction to the debate.

One of the most interesting points in the article is Gopnik’s comparison between television and the internet. Gopnik notes that ‘everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television’. Times and opinions have changed, and television never caused the kind of moral and social apocalypse that some commentators from the seventies predicted. For Gopnik ‘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.’ To force the same impotency on the internet, Gopnik suggests, we can start by simply walking away from the computer once in a while, if only to prove that we can.

You can read the rest of Gopnik’s article on the New Yorker’s website, and because I can’t help myself the full citation for the article is:

Gopnik, Adam. ‘The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.’ The New Yorker, February 14, 2011. Online edition, accessed 14 February 2011.


4 responses to “barbarians at the gate

  1. A Michael Crieghton quote corruption comes to my canine mind. In Jurassic Park the question was posed that “Because we humans know we could, do we ever ask the question if we should?” The quality of information becomes vital- there is only so much time in a dog’s (or human’s) life that one can devote to knowledge assimilation. I see seperating the wheat from the chafe is a major problem for the Never-Betters philo. Hopefully we’ll end up in a Better-than-Ever-Wasers world.

    • hollowlegshungrymind

      First of all – you’re my first commentator so thank you so much!

      Sorting out the wheat from the chaff is definitely an issue with the Never-Betters, although sorting out the pure idealism from the slightly-more-realistic is possibly the real issue. At the end of the day prophecy is a mug’s game.

      The same wheat-from-chaff problem probably applies to the Better-Nevers, though. So much of the writing that deplores the move towards digital publishing (one of my pet topics) seems to idealise the publishing past to the point that it’s barely recognisable as something that could have possibly belonged to this world. For me idealism about the past is more annoying than idealism about the future – so for the moment I think I hover somewhere between Ever-Waser and Never-Better.

  2. I dont disagree with this blog post!

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