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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