In November 2008, I published “The Idiocrats,” an essay on Internet boosterism, on the website of The Nation.
Last year a CNN headline announced, “Internet Gives Voice to Unseen Actors.” The article detailed how websites advertising the services of voice actors are allowing thousands of people to find work broadcasting their disembodied voices across the globe, often for corporate instructional tapes. It’s a typical story of the Internet flattening the world, of opportunities materializing where there were few before. But the headline is what struck me: it may as well be the slogan of Web 2.0, or participatory online culture, or whatever pundits, boosters, sociologists, adolescent-development experts and privacy watchdogs are calling the dominant paradigm this week. One longtime voice actor recalls how difficult it was to get work in 1985, when “no one had a Web site. Today I regularly voice a podcast for a high-tech client, which they share on their Web site as a value-added service.”
There are countless articles and book-length studies telling the stories of millions of people who have been “allowed” or “freed” to do one thing or another by the Internet–as if the “network of networks” were a deus ex machina descended to solve problems related to the economy, creativity and democracy. “The possibilities are endless,” one story reads, “if you have enough engaging executions and manage to keep the user’s attention.”
Many of these articles and books also consider what the Internet has made people less capable of doing: immersing oneself in a 600-page novel, using coffee shops as meeting houses rather than ersatz open cubicles, maintaining the distinction between a social interaction and the projection of a persona orreplicating the levels of productivity common before the factory line was replaced by the information economy and its attendant distractions.
But more important: how are the kids doing? The sons and daughters raised suckling at the nodes of cyberspace, variously called Digital Natives, First Globals and the “Look at Me” generation, have been encouraged, if not compelled, to express themselves uninhibitedly, and frequently. Sometimes people get paid to do so. Mostly, they do not. Whether or not they’re profiting, “They have come to have a degree of control over their cultural environment that is unprecedented,” and that is something to be applauded, assert John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in Born Digital (Basic Books, $25.95), their recent study of the Internet’s impact on (mostly) well-off white kids. “These young people are not passive consumers of media that is broadcast to them, but rather active participants in the making of meaning in their culture. Their art form of the remix, where digital files are combined to create a new video or audio file, is already having an effect on cultural understanding around the world.”
Unlike so many reckonings with the Internet’s seeming degradation of society and culture, Palfrey and Gasser’s argument is enthusiastic about the possibility for new, compelling forms of culture to emerge from the information cesspool. They even dedicate a chapter–”Creators”–to it. But their conclusion, that the rise of user-generated content has empowered young people to take part in a conversation formerly controlled by the mandarin classes, is premised on a pivotal mistake: the confusion of self-expression with art.
Web 2.0 provides something books do not. It “moves us away from a world of largely passive consumers of content produced by a few powerful professionals,” the authors write, “toward communities of increasingly active users.” In other words, it moves us away from educating and entertaining ourselves by reading and viewing works of confirmed cultural value–and this trend is empowering. Books, they suggest, fail to provide the Total Stimulus Environment demanded by today’s youth: “the activity level usually doesn’t go beyond the sensorial, cognitive, and other neuropsychological processes that are necessary to perceive and process its content (what we call ‘reading’).” In other words, it is no longer sufficient to read something that someone has written and take time to reflect upon and interpret it, nor should it be. We need more.
So we arrive at the remix, “one of the most alluring, and often very creative, contributions of Digital Native.” Here, Palfrey and Gasser mistake the technology employed to produce the remix–”young people variously call it ripping, chopping, blending, mashing, or just manipulating it”–with the form itself, which was once called collage or montage and is not unique to any generation. (Granted, YouTube and other websites are incredible forums for those wishing toparody the latest Sarah Palin speech, lip-sync along to “I Want It That Way” or tell the world how difficult it is to be a precocious high schooler living in a small town, “the kind of place that kills you slowly.”) In addition to remixes and YouTube videos, Palfrey and Gasser cite fan fiction (in fact an invention of the analog age) and tagging (“through which Digital Natives are adding context to online content”) as evidence that young people are changing “who gets to control the shaping of culture, the making of ‘meaning.’”
Here’s how it works. Information is organized into content, something irrelevant transformed into something self-evident that nevertheless offers a small surprise, a moment of self-acknowledgment. Content is a placeholder for nothing, referring to other instances of nothing; organized as content, information does not want to be free, but wants to achieve the quality of air. The creations of Digital Natives sometimes undermine this pernicious logic, but just as often they confirm it, mimicking and circulating content and occasionally awarding it with the Total Stimulus Environment Gold Medal: “going viral.” Do these creations qualify as culture? And if everyone gets to decide what’s meaningful, won’t “meaning” no longer mean very much? If the old hierarchy is being dispossessed and sources of authority are disappearing, what will be left to remix (besides last week’s remixes)? Will the multitude of chattering users prevail in consigning those more considered voices to virtual oblivion?
One case study provided by Palfrey and Gasser is Stevie Ryan, who is now a YouTube celebrity. Ryan became famous for making short videos in which she plays the starring role, a plucky 18-year-old Hispanic woman from East LA named Cynthia (a.k.a Little Loca), who delivers parodic monologues in which she feigns poor cellphone reception or complains about a bad haircut. She never would have reached “an audience of 25,000 viewers per week if she had to rely on Hollywood studios to get her there,” Palfrey and Gasser argue–proof that the dynasties of Murdoch and Newhouse are largely irrelevant in today’s media landscape. Then again, she might never have won such a large audience if she had to rely on Hollywood studios because no one would pay to watch her videos. While they are “creations,” they are almost completely devoid of value; they do nothing but express the self, with a minimum of artifice. It’s hard to imagine anyone forking over hard-earned cash to watch them. The way we tend to use the Internet seems antithetical to such transactions (money for content), which would compel us to consider any investment of time and attention; instead, what we have is a sort of perpetual detour, with Stevie Ryan and friends marking the miles traveled on a road to nowhere.
In books exalting or criticizing the way we use the Internet, and the way it has rewired us, there is little talk of developing aesthetic and literary forms specific to this new technology. The concern is mostly with identity and interaction and much less with culture and interpretation. Palfrey and Gasser at least hazard some insight into this area, but they ultimately can’t convince themselves of the value of YouTube videos and social networking sites. So, suddenly, they take a page out of the neoliberal playbook, in which all news is somehow hitched to the cause of global democracy: “The primary benefit of moving to a global online culture that is more participatory and that requires higher digital literacy skills is that it may lead to stronger democracies.”
Such narrow-sightedness–it’s as if Pop Art never happened, much less Fluxus, or Dada, or Duchamp–stems from a common tendency to treat the Internet in a historical vacuum, and from an obliviousness to the various artistic and literary endeavors (beyond the remix) thriving online, using the Internet as a medium of sorts, aiming to create novel experiences for users, viewers and readers alike. These enterprises have their own historical lineage and concerns, but they are part of a century-long struggle to free the page from its binding, the reader from the hold of linearity and the image from its position within the frame. This is not new. Even for Mallarmé, the “artificial unity that used to be based on the square measurements of the book” had become outdated; he called instead for a format that embraced “hesitation, disposition of parts, their alterations and relationships.”
In failing to recognize other currents of online culture, Palfrey and Gasser contradict their argument that the Internet is enabling people to create and consume as they wish, outside the AOL-Time-Warner-Murdoch-Disney-Clear-Channel ghetto. (What is YouTube becoming if not a new iteration of the mainstream?) The Internet offers new experiences of duration and space. But the most interesting of those experiences are created by exploiting and working against the tendencies toward speed and inattentiveness often described as intrinsic to the Internet, rather than to the economies it has spawned.