How the internet can [still] change the world

Jeff Jarvis’ recent article, from 24th April, over at Comment Is Free has been bubbling away in my mind since I read it and his main point, that the internet “makes obsolete old orthodoxies and old definitions of left and right”, has been picked up by Brian McNair, professor of journalism and communication at the University of Strathclyde, in this article on what he describes as the cultural chaos that has accompanied the rise of the internet. The question that has been on my mind, though, is whether we can benefit from those effects here?Jeff Jarvis focuses on the effect of the internet on the political categorisations of left and right

In the dawn of the blogosphere, some optimists hoped that our medium would plough common ground. Matt Welch, writing in the magazine Reason, recalled that in the unified days after 9/11, warbloggers shared “a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalised left-right split of the 1990s … a readiness to admit error [and] a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review.” Today, he writes, “Man, was I wrong.” But only his expectations were wrong. The internet is not a field of daisies where we’ll all find peace and love. It ain’t Woodstock. It’s just people talking.

The internet is only doing to politics what it has done to other industries: it disaggregates elements and then enables these free atoms to reaggregate into new molecules; it fragments the old and unifies the new. So in the end, the internet gives us the opportunity to make more nuanced expressions of our political worldview, which makes obsolete old orthodoxies and old definitions of left and right.[added emphasis]

While Brian McNair uses particular examples in his argument, as does Jeff Jarvis, there is also an underlying acceptance that the pluralism of views available to be read and, hopefully, understood, carry with them an opportunity to question, assess, and perhaps be convinced by another’s argument –

Its [cultural chaos] roots lie first in the destabilising impact of digital communication technologies. The quantity of news and other information available has increased exponentially; the scale of today’s online media is truly mind-boggling. This has been felt by all the world’s populations, whether they live in an advanced capitalist society, an emerging economic superpower such as India or China, an authoritarian middle eastern state, or a developing country in Africa. And information, like knowledge, is power.

Not only is there more information out there, the speed of its flow has increased. The networked nature of the online media means that an article or item posted by an online jounalist or blogger in one part of the world immediately becomes part of a system accessible to anyone with a PC and an internet connection, anywhere – linked, signposted, rapidly becoming part of the common conversation for millions.

Consequently, as Rupert Murdoch put it in his March speech on the knowledge revolution, “power is moving away from the old elite”, towards the consumers of media, who are demanding content delivered “when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it”. These consumers are better educated than ever before and “unwilling to be led”. Last week’s lecture by Mark Thompson on the future of the BBC hit similar notes, with its recognition that emerging digital technologies will create “seismic shifts in public expectations, lifestyle and behaviours”. From the offices of News Corp to the boardrooms of the BBC, the age of top-down, elite-controlled media is passing, replaced by a decentralised global infosphere of unprecedented accessibility and diversity.

To the impact of technology we can add that of increased competition in the media industries, and the emergence of a counter-cultural marketplace where the books and films of commentators such as Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky can bestride the global best-seller lists alongside Dan Brown and JK Rowling. As long as there is someone willing to pay for it, just about anything can be said about any government or leader, no matter how critical, and find its place in mainstream media. As Murdoch conceded in March, neither editors nor proprietors call the shots on content any more. Another factor in this emerging climate is the ideological vacuum created by the end of the cold war. In these pages last week Jeff Jarvis argued that the internet “makes obsolete old orthodoxies and old definitions of left and right”. The rise of the internet, coinciding as it did with the unravelling of the USSR and the socialist alternative to capitalism, has facilitated the search for new ways of thinking about what is wrong with the world and how we might fix it.

To return to my earlier question, on whether that effect can be of benefit to our own peculiar form of political [the term is loosely applied] debate? I’m not convinced completely that we will. The uncertainity of the cultural chaos described by McNair does present an opportunity but, as he acknowledges, that opportunity also contains risk –

This isn’t Fukuyama’s End of History, nor is it the End of Ideology. Rather, after 1989, history sped off in a new direction, driven back to the future by the resurgence of primitive ideologies suppressed by the icy grip of superpower rivalry. Fifteen years after the Soviet Union shut up shop the structuring bi-polarities of the late 20th century have dissolved. The categories of left and right cannot make sense of the complexities of environmental or identity politics, or the savage logics of ethnic and sectarian strife. No longer is the world dominated by the competition between capitalism and socialism. Instead we have what Samuel Huntington in 1996 presciently called “the clash of civilisations”, meaning the clash between modernity and medievalism, authoritarianism and democracy, secularism and religious totalitarianism. The grounds for optimism in this are that cultural chaos, like chaos in nature, can be both destructive and creative.

To paraphrase, the erosion of the categories of left and right in the common conversation is, in part, a result of those categories’ failure to adequately “make sense of the complexities of environmental or identity politics, or the savage logics of ethnic and sectarian strife”.

Sound familiar? The risk, as I see it, is that, as that erosion continues, the apparent certainity offered by the savage logic may seem more appealing to some, not less.

There is, of course, the option of the optimistic, creative, way forward. But whether the wider media [including bloggers] in this small, if vocal, section of the global conversation can actually make a valid contribution to that conversation isn’t, yet, clear. It may depend on whether we can embrace that creative opportunity by accepting the need to examine closely and address our very own clash of civilisations – ie whether it is, for example, between modernity and medievalism, authoritarianism and democracy, or secularism and religious totalitarianism – as well as the implications for our politics.

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  • Henry94

    Milhouse: We gotta spread this stuff around. Let’s put it on the Internet!

    Bart: No! We have to reach people whose opinions actually matter!

  • Pete Baker

    No offense intended, Henry.. but you did read beyond the title before commenting?

  • Mick Fealty

    I thought it was a self deprecating putdown myself Pete. 😉

  • Henry94

    It was more that I thought the topic was interesting but the introduction long and dull (no offence). I do believe people, myself included, barely scan long posts.

    I hoped a little quote might kick it back up the charts and give it a second chance.

  • Pete Baker

    “I do believe people, myself included, barely scan long posts”

    Ah.. another of the orthodoxies…

  • Mick Fealty

    Henry,

    I think you are being slightly disingenious there. Pete raises a number of interesting questions, not directly related to that excellent quote from the Simpsons.

    Not least that in the face of complexity, there is a real danger of flight to certainty. In Northern Ireland we’ve seen an almost pre-modern determination to stick to certain narrative, rather than taking a chance on something news or investigating the anomalous.

    The sharpest comment about my own biases I’ve read on or off Slugger was on the JoBlog, when someone said I put too much value on dissenters. I do put more value on dissent than orthodox consensus, precisely because this allows for (though doesn’t always give unto) complexity to arise in an otherwise ’emulsioned’ space.

    I long ago gave up wondering where this internet revolution was going to take us. As this guy said in the Guardian yesterday:

    Contemporary western politics had disaggregated well before the popularisation of the the web, weblogging, or mobile phones, and the cleaving of the population to these media is as much as anything a reflection of the disaggregated character of these technologies.

    Of course, while we shape technologies they go on to shape us. But even if the internet “lowers the barrier to entry … in politics” it cannot create engaging and compelling ideas – and these will be key to creating any political worldview worth having.

  • Mick

    In fairness to Jeff Jarvis and Brian McNair, while Jarvis retains an element of optimism on the role of the internet in all this, both, but McNair in particular, highlight the accompanying rise of the internet with the disaggregation of the categories of left and right rather than a causal role.

    McNair’s article was interesting too in that he ties in the wider media’s repsonse to the disaggregation and the increasing speed of the flow of information to his view of the cultural chaos.. although he remains an optimist for the common conversation, as he put it, my concern is that, here, the dominant orthodoxies have been based on the savage logic of sectarian strife.

    Those orthodoxies are much more difficult to de-atomise than the categories of left and right – categories which we have barely begun to refer to in our politics.. just when everyone else appears to be re-framing theirs.

  • Henry94

    Mick

    I read an interesting piece recently about the effect the internet had on the UFO phenomenon. Initially it was a boon with all the enthusiasts able to contact each other but in the long run the spuriousness of each claim became manifest when exposed to rigorous examination.

    Almost unnoticed the UFOs have left our skies.

    The internet gives unlimited information. Those who are motivated can put their information out there but they have no control over its impact.

    In Northern Ireland we’ve seen an almost pre-modern determination to stick to certain narrative

    That pre-dates the internet and may well survive it! NI has almost nothing to do with the internet in a political sense. It’s too small.

    But even if the internet “lowers the barrier to entry … in politics” it cannot create engaging and compelling ideas – and these will be key to creating any political worldview worth having.

    That’s just nostalgia. Engaging, compelling and worth having are all in the eye of the beholder. That is old thinking where the “right” ideas could be promoted by a “responsible” media.

    Because people will have information in the long run the good ideas will survive and the bad will go with the UFOs.

    But none of us can assume our ideas will turn out to be the good ones.

  • Mick Fealty

    Spot on Henry,

    “But none of us can assume our ideas will turn out to be the good ones”.

    What constantly surprises me is which stories fly and which sink without trace. It’s not possible to forward guess.

    I’ve also seen ideas floated by one camp, or school of media thought, snapped up and re-vocalised by an opposing camp months later.

  • Pete Baker

    In Northern Ireland we’ve seen an almost pre-modern determination to stick to certain narrative

    That pre-dates the internet and may well survive it! NI has almost nothing to do with the internet in a political sense.”

    That was the focus of my earlier question in the original post, Henry, even if I don’t necessarily agree with you that the common conversation that Brian McNair refers to will have negligible effect on politics here.

    I’d also point out that, as well as the issue of the quality of the conversation, which Mick has since highlighted elsewhere, it’s important to note the other points made by Brian McNair in regard to the increasing speed of that conversation, its global reach and the wider media’s reaction.

  • DK

    Henry,

    I think you are right to an extent, but while the UFOs have left the skies, they have been replaced by a host of other things (black ops, angels, orbs, cell-phone masts). While these too will (hopefully) die down as per the UFOs, the internet has facilitated their rise.

    In short, the internet knocks down one nut and replaces him with 2 more.

  • Henry94

    Pete

    All true but ones political perspective id not determined as much by information as it is by ones place in society.

    Just because we have more information and wider discussion does not mean we will have agreement.

    There is a mistaken view that the is some kind of nirvana of decency and consensus that we could all arrive at. But those who hold that view really think it means everybody coming to the same conclusions as them.

    In that way they are no different to any other ideologue.

    DK

    True but I wonder if these communities of the crazed are just keeping people of the streets. Even this one. Something happens and we can all come here and talk about it. I certainly find I talk less politics in the real world these days.

    So maybe the blogsphere may be a great safety valve for the establishment!

  • Mick Fealty

    Henry,

    The lack of politics in the real world of NI is precisely because our politicians aren’t doing it surely?

    Slugger feels more like an ‘academic’ (without always having the accompanying standards) talk shop, since no one locally can make any decisions over the subject of our conversations.

    There’s something in the safety valve idea, I wouldn’t discount it. But judging from the small but steady flow of complaints I get from various ‘establishments’ – I’d say it causes its fair share of discomfort too.

    One thing I’ve begun to notice is that we are starting to get fairly crude attempts at ‘spin’: ie not press releases, but emails from interest groups with a line they want us to push.

    I don’t have a problem with this, since sometimes the story is genuinely interesting. Besides what I’ve tried to cultivate at Slugger is an audience that thinks and probes and will not take things at face value.

    C
    Besides rude attempts at spin, are likely to come unstuck since, to quote the Cluetrain once again, …the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

  • Pete Baker

    Henry

    All true but ones political perspective id not determined as much by information as it is by ones place in society.

    There are degrees of selfishness and closed-mindedness in everyone’s political perspective.

    Just because we have more information and wider discussion does not mean we will have agreement.

    No-one, myself included, or that I’ve linked to, is talking about agreement.. the point is the common conversation.

    There is a mistaken view that the [internet] is some kind of nirvana of decency and consensus that we could all arrive at. But those who hold that view really think it means everybody coming to the same conclusions as them.

    No-one who’s been on the internet for longer than an hour could continue to regard it as a nirvana of decency and consensus.

    And, once again, it’s not about the conclusions, it’s about the common conversation.

  • Henry94

    Pete

    There are degrees of selfishness and closed-mindedness in everyone’s political perspective.

    This is an extraordinary interpretation of the suggestion that societal position determines politics. From such a starting position it is impossible to reach a sensible conclusion about anything.

    Why? Because you don’t even understand the extent to which you own position is determined by your class interest. So you are likely to see the common conversation as inevitably coalescing around your outlook.

    I said this

    There is a mistaken view that the is some kind of nirvana of decency and consensus that we could all arrive at. But those who hold that view really think it means everybody coming to the same conclusions as them.

    You changed it to this.

    There is a mistaken view that the [internet] is some kind of nirvana of decency and consensus that we could all arrive at. But those who hold that view really think it means everybody coming to the same conclusions as them.

    My point was not specific to the internet. So please don’t misquote me. It’s hard enough defending the things I actually say!

  • Pete Baker

    Henry

    This is an extraordinary interpretation of the suggestion that societal position determines politics. From such a starting position it is impossible to reach a sensible conclusion about anything.

    Extraordinary? It’s a paraphrasing of your suggestion, but it’s not an extraordinary interpretation. The degrees I referred to allow for greater latitude in personal political perspectives than your suggestion does.

    Apologies if my introduction of the “internet” into your quote offended. There was a gap in the sentence that left it nonsensical, the discussion was about the internet.. I jumped to a conclusion.

  • Henry94

    I think my point is fairly clear. The internet does not change the fundementals of politics. I’m not really sure what your point is.

  • Pete Baker

    That’s probably because I made my point in a long and dull manner..

  • Jo

    ..never, Pete! 🙂 Thats my job lol

  • Pete Baker

    Oh.. I’m much duller than you, Jo 🙂