We've had "The Internet is a hangout for nerds". Then we got "The Internet is full of Kiddie Porn", which led to "The Internet is full of Neo-Nazis". Underneath all of this has been "The Internet can make Rich White Males even richer, if only we can get rid of the nerds, the perverts, and the fascists." But lately, a new line has begun to issue forth from the mass media, mostly from the more 'intellectual sorts, the sort of people who write for the New York Times sunday magazine and have columns in "Atlantic". This line is:"The Internet is destroying social cohesion!"
To which I say:So? Your point?
Pick up any newspaper catering to a slightly up scale audience, or any political magazine catering to ditto, and sooner or later, you are bound to run into somebody, usually a liberal, but occasionally a conservative, claiming that we are too fragmented as a society, that we don't all share common values anymore, that the front porch and the town square have been replaced by the living room couch and the shopping center. That if only we went back to the 'good old days', when people cared about one another, then everything would be wonderful, the skies would be blue, and there'd be good jobs at good wages for all.
Anyone wanna buy a bridge? Cheap?
First of all, there never were any good old days. You're living in what is, by any real measure, the best 'days' this planet has ever seen, at least if you're in a position to be reading this. (And if you're not, if you're living in some filth-encrusted third-world kleptocracy, well, guess what? You're no worse off than your ancestors were, and at least there's a possibility, however slim, of you someday being better off. Hey, you know English and have been taught how to use a computer, right? But I digress.) Point is, the 'good old days' only exist in somebodies blurred rear-view mirror, viewed through a rose-colored fog and colored by the first signs of Alzheimers. The front porch existed so your parents could spy on you kissing your girlfriend, and the town square was more likely to be the site of a lynching than a vigorous political debate. The reason we gather around the TV and shop at the superstore is because these things are better than what they've replaced. Blasphemy, you say? Let's think a bit.
This one's a real no brainer. Think about your neighbors. The idiot next door whose entire life revolves around football. The moron on the other side of you who thinks the CIA is beaming mind-control rays to his dog. The goober in the apartment above yours who collect barbed wire. All the hopelessly, incredibly, unbearably dull people who you have the misfortune to live next to. Do you really want your only source of entertainment to be talking with them? (OK, the guy with the CIA fixation could be amusing, I admit. But the others? Feh.) I'll take "55 Channels And Nothing On" over "55 IQ And Nothing Between The Ears" any day. When radio (and then TV) arrived to give people something to do other than socialize with their brain-dead neighbors, small wonder people became addicted to it.
I am going somewhere with this, be patient. All that TV has given you a short attention span.
Have you ever lived somewhere where there wasn't a shopping center, a strip mall, or the like around? It's hell, trust me. Acquiring a typical weeks supplies involves marching through half a dozen or more stores, all of which have no selection to speak of, and ludicrous prices -- because they've got you by the short curly ones, and they know it. Walking all over the place lugging a dozen different bags, fighting the mob to fit into a tiny shop the size of a broom closet or even a Manhattan apartment, hoping you might actually find what you're looking for. This isn't some idealized Disney 'Main Street USA'. It's an annoying pain in the butt.
Oh, but you get to meet your neighbors! Shopping becomes a social experience! Yeah. So your neighbors find out everything about you, what magazines you read, what food you cook, whether you get cherry-flavored or strawberry-flavored condoms. Oh joy, oh bliss.
OK, so where am I going with this rant? What the hell does this have to do with the Internet? Be patient, Grasshopper!
A few years ago, when everyone was giddy over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Empire (It became OK to call it an Empire after it had collapsed, you'll notice. I wonder, when people objected to referring to the USSR as the 'Evil Empire', did they think it wasn't evil, or it wasn't an empire? I've asked many liberals that question, and gotten the usual 'You just don't get it' or a listing of the evil/imperialist things America has done, as if there could only be one Evil Empire on the planet at a time. Well, there is now!) and suchlike, someone with a name I cannot remember got his Warhol by publishing a book called 'The End Of History'. Evidently, with the Cold War over, there would be a worldwide triumph of liberal democracy and welfare-state capitalism, and that would be that. No one ever bothered to tell him about seething ethnic hatreds in Central Europe and Africa, about religious fundamentalism in the mideast and parts of the USSR'nt, or about the fact that human beings just love to kill each other for no good reason at all.
In any event, history shows no sign of ending. But what is ending, says Lizard, who is about to join the ranks of pundits who predict bold things and end up being made fun of a few years later on the WWW, is geography.
No, that doesn't mean you can stop studying for those finals you have next week. That sort of geography will always be with us, and if you end up on 'Jeopardy', you can even make money from it. What I mean is that geography as a factor in societal constructs is beginning to end.
For most of history, who you were was very much determined by where you lived, and who lived around you. Absent printing, you could only know what you were taught by the people living near you. Absent rapid travel, or even any decent maps, you couldn't easily travel to meet other people, or read what few books there were, unless some happened to be near you. Your choice of mates was basically determined by who happened to be of breeding age in your town. Your choice of profession -- wasn't. A small handful of people managed to break free of their birthplace, but the majority did not. 'People' like Jerry Rifkin praise this abysmal hell for granting people 'security' and a 'sense of place'. (And if that doesn't prove to you that Rifkin's an idiot, then you're an idiot. Stop reading this, and go look for some nekkid wimmin.)
Even as technology advanced, geography still mattered. The government of the United States is predicated on geography. When the Constitution was being written, it was assumed, with some correctness, that people living in the same area would have common interests, and thus, it made sense to elect representatives based on where you lived. Some of the biggest debates at the Constitutional Convention were about how to divvy up the country, and the result was two houses of Congress. This has served to greatly slow down the progress of government, and thus, is a good thing.
Not content to predict the end of geography, Lizard also now predicts the End Of Time. Not some weird Hawkins/Sagan sort of thing, but the end of time in a social sense. People all over the world meet in virtual space, in an infinite now. It's 7:26 PM on the Pacific Coast as I write this, and mail in my inbox continues to flood in from the East coast of the United States, from England, from Germany, from wherever. My web page sits, waiting to be read, 24 hours a day, and my Usenet posts ebb and flow from servers around the world over the course of a week or so, to end up in the dustbins of history and Deja News to be read a month, a year, a decade later. Words frozen in magnetic cages, conversations as preserved and fixed as the proverbial unlucky Devonian insect, sentences placed in the present tense in a bad imitation of Alan Moore. Time has stopped.
We are entering the age of the discontiguous, asynchronous society, and the old rules (and they never were rules at all, were they?) no longer apply.
Why does this scare the sort of people who write for Atlantic and have letters printed in the New York Times? Because it means the end of their power. It means the end of artificial consensus, it means the end of leaders who set the pace and followers who follow. It means the end of the sanctioning of art, literature, or opinion as 'mainstream' or 'fringe'. It means that everyone is creator and critic, where every individual decides whose opinions matter to him and whose do not. The movie critic is replaced by the rec.arts.movies.reviews newsgroup, and ten thousand threads in a hundred thousand forums replace the editorial pages. When it is as easy to reach one page on the Web as it is to reach another, when every opinion is an equal click away, then there is no creation of 'proper' and 'improper' opinions. It will no longer be the case that the 'mainstream' opinions get slick coverage in TIME and the 'fringe' gets mimeographed handouts. There will be no way to zone ideas where they will not be seen by the rank-and-file, no way to proclaim the 'correct' range of opinions.
No more consensus. And with it, no more of the sick joke we call Democracy. How much longer can the government continue to claim legitimacy when it represents an ever dwindling percentage of the population? How can the government even function, when decisions cannot be reduced to a binary 'yes/no', but instead must account for a thousand variations of opinion? Even the 'mass' media is no longer so massive....from three networks to a hundred cable channels, to a million Webcasts. What would once have been isolated incidents or local outrages become national, even international, outcries. The Church of Scientology is fighting a hydra distributing its 'secret' documents, and it is draining itself in lawsuits faster than it can drain its foes. Cybersitters' fascism, which would once have been unrevealed for fear of losing an advertiser, is now front-page news -- because the net never lets a story die. There is no sweeping a scandal, real or imagined, under the rug, because there will always be someone with a gripe and a modem to keep it alive.
From now on...no memes die. It's scary, considering some of the memes out there. Creationism. Craig Shergold. Fascism. Pyramid Schemes. Christianity. Communism. All the weird, the bizaare, the scary, the dangerous...they're all out there, and they won't go away. There's someone who'll believe everything, and the urge to spread our memes is perhaps even more powerful than the urge to mate.
And the power of the net is not only the power to talk, not only the power to listen -- but the power to not listen, as well. Killfiles and filters and agents sort the news, so matter what people are saying, you hear only what you hear. The net has the paradoxical power to create a world in which everyone talks, but nobody listens -- where the evangelist can email the world but the world can't flame him back. We can become incredibly isolated in the midst of unprecedented power to communicate...we can enter the worlds greatest library ever built and then put out our eyes so that we can't read.
Some will, of course. But they are ultimately a minority. The incurious are almost invariably those of the past. The new generation, those born since the time of the Two Steves, have never known an unwired world. They have only the dimmest conception of the world of the front porch and the town square. Their children, the children being born today, will have no conception of it at all. The odds are good a lot of them will not even experience the public school or the summer camp -- they will have no need of such things. Education, entertainment, companionship -- all of this will come to them, in environments they control. They will live in communities of their own creation, in a world that meets their expectations because they have shaped it so. The evolution of humanity has been away from gene and towards meme -- away from any dependance on others save that which we choose. We are no longer bound by world and time -- we can create both as we need. We will stop being a world of nations and tribes, and become a world of people.
Nations and tribes need leaders. Individuals in full control of their own environment do not. This is what scares the powers-that-won't-be-for-much-longer. This is why they decry the 'breakdown' of society -- when what is happening is the creation of the only society that has any moral right to exist, the consensual society of mind. They are Neanderthals, listening to their Cro-Magnon children talk, and realizing that the world has passed them by. They'll fight back as Neanderthals do -- with clubs and fire and hoarse, inarticulate imitation of the language of their evolved progeny. And then they'll die, destroyed by those they fathered.
There's an awfully nice universe being born. Be part of it.
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