In praise of the bumbling, stumbling amateur…

The listen again on the Internet good or bad You and Yours phone in is available already. Background here. I rambled a bit in my second answer, and then found myself running on the outside of the programme for much of the programme. One thing I did notice though was that for a man who, as Stephen Coleman noted, ‘makes living out of being snide about other people’s intelligence’, Andrew Keen always seems impressed with the exceptional intelligence of those who speak with him (which tends to dilute the power of his premise that ordinary people and kids are just too thick not to fall into the many invidious traps waiting unbeknownst upon the ‘net).

I’m glad that someone like Andrew is sowing some seeds of doubt about the verities of the Internet. I’m sympathetic to concerns about the quality of news outputs for instance. Quality news takes the kind of time and money that large news organisations seem unwilling to invest.

That doesn’t mean I agree with him. Currently, and actually well before the advent of the Internet, large papers have been cutting the amount they invest in quality news gathering and output. Who or what has replaced the likes of the Sunday Times Insight team?

But the truth is, Andrew wants to do what he cannot do: that is to roll up the last ten years and pretend that the internet simply hasn’t occurred. Indeed it has already penetrated the institutions he seeks to protect.

Two years ago the Wall Street Journal reported that 51% of journalists use blogs regularly, with 28% depending on them for daily material. That it is rarely admitted in public, undermines public debate about such matters and allows someone like Andrew assert that somehow the two are in some kind of ‘dis-relationship’. That somehow blogs, amateur and, therefore corrosive, in habit different worlds from the professional journalists.

For me the net is a good thing in the way that the invention of Gutenburg’s moveable type printing press was good back in 1440. It democratized learning for the common man, and gave rise to religious schisms which in turn gave rise to ruthless and bloody war that lasted several millennia. But who now, as Andrew seems to be claiming for the internet, would say that books had been a bad thing?

The most telling quote was from a businessman just over half way through, who thought that the internet was “a worse invention than the atom bomb” and complained that far from making things easier, it rarely gave them time to rest. Others complained it was dehumanising our lives. Yet, the positive stories were largely about the net as a connective force, keeping in touch with families, etc.. In one snip the ‘lead singer’ from the Zimmers says about YouTube when he launched his first video: “I did it for no other reason than I could”.

For what they are worth, here’s my five things we can do now, we couldn’t do before the Internet:

• Communicate instantly with friends and relatives on the other side of the world. Instant messaging keeps families talking where previously they would have had to wait for letters.

• Collaborate with others of a like mind with a fraction of the time and effort that it might have taken twenty years ago. Think fanzines, printing, envelope-stuffing, stamps, and subscriptions to pay for it all.

• It has allowed ordinary people to engage with a higher level of knowledge and complexity, without needing direct access to universities/libraries/etc… You no longer need a legal dictionary, or venerable tome on all the finer points of the British constitution to access, precise details.

• We can think faster, and smarter, by picking up ideas from others and testing them on other communities of individuals.

• We can read for ourselves what citizens in other countries think about events in their own countries.

And the downside:

• Who ensures the maintenance of quality outputs, when too little on the net is actually paid for? If the net becomes the largest market, who is going to paid for quality product? Although to an extent I think this is probably reading the future, as though it were a perfect extension of a turbulent present.

• Privacy is a long term worry. The net may appear to be a wide open space, but large parts of it are ultimately amenable to control by a very small number of organisations in the US.

• The blurring of public and private spheres. Nothing is quite as annonymous as it seems. It’s a public space, and what you write when you are 16 or 21 one as a bit of craic amongst friends, may not read so well amongst business colleagues when you are 25.

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