Monday, July 23, 2007

What’s the Matter with my Web 2.0?

Maybe I should call this blog, Am I a book snob 2.0. Or, the hidden benefits of elitism. One of the crucial facts forgotten about American democracy is that a power elite shaped its fundamental principles. Had the process of forming a democracy been itself democratic many would have preferred the safety (or cowardice) of sticking it out with mad King George. I’m thinking about this because of Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult Of The Amateur, a lightning rod of a book that has sparked an onslaught of criticism mostly from people who haven’t read it.

The problem is that the nature of the attacks all but proves Keen’s point and he knows it. His all out assault on web 2.0, particularly it’s user generated content has provoked vicious responses from that very same group and the first thing that’s noticeable is how amateurish most of the criticism is. Simple, grade 2 mistakes like attacking the man instead of his argument. Attacking the man because one had not bothered to read his book, and not seeing how obvious the ignorance. Calling him a motherfucker, for example. This book has provoked constructive debate but that is lost on people who because of the very nature of their sites or blogs have never applied genuine, informed critical thinking. They have never fact checked a blog to make sure there is truth to back up an argument, and have never been in a situation where simply saying that he is a dumb motherfucker is not enough. This of course proves his point even though one cannot escape Keen’s own personal stake in the matter—perhaps his own bitterness at having launched an Internet company that quickly went bust.

He may also be ignoring though he claims not to, that the same Internet is responsible for breaking truths that the mainstream media did not or would not. Would anybody have been the wiser about James Frey were it not for Smoking gun? I tread lightly because this is after all a blog and not only has it facilitated my own expression but also my communication with you, something that would not, has not and will not happen in the mainstream media where my voice simply does not count. And the stakes are not even as high for myself as it is for a Lebanese teenager who has nothing but a modem. That said there are things that I have written in my blog that would not have passed the first round of fact checking that I left untouched because I knew nobody would call me out on it. This is dangerous, something I have started to call Wikipedia wisdom. I come across Wikipedia wits all the time and the danger is not that they are unaware that Wikipedia is to a huge percent incorrect if not outright false, but that they do not care. Truth has become as flexible a commodity as trendiness and not half as necessary.

Perhaps the biggest myth about web 2.0 is it being a universal equalizer. A tool that has made the ordinary person, as powerful as any pundit. But not only is this untrue but the deception is perilous. The new boss is really no different from the old boss except that the slave doesn’t think he has a master. may have seemed like the voice of the people but it is really the voice of a few steering many, sometimes to bad movies that merely fit in with kinks of 34 year old virgins, movies like Me Myself and Irene. Watch how the web shaped the look of Transformers, where overgrown boys, still terrified of icky girls were responsible for eliminating a female transformer.

And then there is Wikipedia. The end result of Wikipedia being accepted as fact is not that truth becomes irrelevant (that’s the beginning), but that truth become easily manipulated. Contrary to what you may think, the internet shrinks opinion as much as it expands it. You may think that your gmail account is safe and easily accessible, and it is. But g-mail is also two gigs of your life that can be wiped out in a second by somebody you have never met. And there’s nothing you can do about it. A book in my hand, in my closet or hidden in my cellar means that when the oppressors come I can hide my knowledge, instead of watching it being destroyed by the whim and fancy of whoever is the programmer. Web 2.0 is power but it means nothing if the light goes. That’s an entire universe erased by a power switch. Youtube is ultimately controlled and the controller is not you.

Another big problem with web freedom so far is that is has not come with web responsibility, a fact reassuring to pedopliles and rumourmongers everywhere. So a biography of Anderson Cooper can make a huge detour into his sexuality, plunging into hearsay and hear-think and departing from fact and decorum, as if whom he is sleeping with is as important as how many died in Hurricane Katrina. I have seen in my own case how web reading has hurt my ability to read and teach books. Even now I have to force myself to not ‘web read’ novels— to not scan the first four or so lines, then ‘scroll’ to the bottom and turn the page.

Andrew keen is keen on pointing out how much the new web world has destroyed the old, better establishment, but nobody had to murder someone so dead set on suicide. A better point to be made is that the world that web 2.0 is creating is far inferior to the one that came before it. The Blind leading the blind hoping they’ll all eventually see—or, more likely conclude that seeing is way overrated anyway. A bigger problem is the new boss destroying a world it is not equipped to supplant. Or at least not yet. You may think that a voice from the street means more that a Walter Cronkite, but should a Hurricane Katrina happen or a President gets assassinated you need a Cronkite to hold 250 million people together. You need Britannica and its researched facts because should you need to save a life, a Wikipedia tip could just as likely kill. You need an where people who hate this blog cannot then go on my page, write a barrage on disgusting reviews despite not having read the book, and drive my rating down to one star, knowing that the American reading public trusts other readers more than critics.

But as I said before Andrew keen makes the same mistake that traditional media makes, screaming bloody murder while pointing the gun at himself. By trying to stretch his mouth wide open to include pornography, pedophiles and Youtube he exposes himself instead as a luddite in Bill O'Riley drag. You Tube may be a world where "Nothing seems too prosaic or narcissistic for these videographer monkeys," but it is also the only place where you’ll find James Brown on the TAMI show, or Lebanese kids showing their side of the whole bombing last year, because the mainstream media will show neither. Stephen Colbert knows that had he fought Youtube instead of left it alone, many of his present viewers would have ignored him. Keen attacks the wisdom of the crowd and the lack on an information central but fails to remember how easily manipulated information was even up to recently, which is why people still have a pleasing sense of nostalgia about Operation Desert Storm and trust anything Fox News channel tells them.

He also has to face the fact that web 2.0 is not going away, in fact a web 3.0 is on the horizon already. He may also be ignoring that many blogs have gone on to genuine intelligent content whether that be the range of opinion on The Huffington Post, or the simple elegance and grace of The Sartorialist. Unlike Keen, I see intelligence in an upward not downward curve. Human beings inevitably want more and that greed for information—not more, but better information— is always good. That greed has sparked everything from the creation of the wheel to outer space exploration to the discovery that the world is round. We are curious and hungry creatures and while we feel safety in the wisdom of the crowd, that crowd still needs that one kid who realizes that the Emperor is naked. What Keen does not realize is that this lone seeing eye —The web 2.0 Galileo or Dorothy Parker will come from the same crowd that is right now flying blind.