Monday, November 29, 2010

The Internet Changes Nothing

An historian of media and communications makes the point that the internet changes nothing:

We knew the revolution wouldn’t be televised, but many of us really hoped it might be on the Internet. Now we know these hopes were false. There was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution. We will stumble on in more or less exactly the way we did before massive computer networks infiltrated our daily lives.

-- snip --

But what exactly is new here? Not very much. Email is still mail. Online newspapers are still newspapers. YouTube videos are still videos. Virtual stores are still stores. MMORPGs are still variations on D&D. A user-built encyclopedia is still a reference book. Stealing mp3s is still theft. Cyber-porn is still porn. Internet poker is still gambling. In terms of content, the Internet gives us almost nothing that the much maligned “traditional media” did not.

- snip --

The media experts, however, tell us that there really is something new and transformative about the Internet. It goes under various names, but it amounts to “collaboration.” The Internet makes it much easier for people to do things together ... Collaboration abounds online. That’s a fair point. But “easier” is not new or transformative. There is nothing new about any of the activities that take place on the aforementioned sites. We did them all in the Old World of Old Media.

-- snip --

Just why we would think that a new medium like the Internet would “change everything” is a bit of a mystery, but it probably has to do with the lingering influence of Marshall McLuhan. The sage of Toronto famously taught that “the medium is the message,” which is to say that media technologies themselves are powerful agents of social change. It’s a nice slogan, but it’s not really true.

-- snip --

In the end, the message is the message, and the message transmitted over virtually all modern media, the Internet included, is this: buy something.


Rob Pugh said...

What the internet changes is ease of distribution. Gutenberg to the nth power. And the ease of archiving material. And the ease of connection. Never have so many been connected to so many. [That they choose to engage in LOLcats or WOW says more to the human condition than the technology.] Poe doesn't seem to get it, imho. He deems something a failure because it fails to accomplish only that which he feels is significant. He's missing the point. And there's no such thing as "stealing mp3s" - that's why the law treats it as copyright infringement, not theft. Guy clearly expects

In other news, grandpa wants the kids off his lawn, thinks all their new fangled music is garbage.

Rob Pugh said...

Sorry, unfinished sentence/thought there... [preview should be my friend.]

After "Guy clearly expects" should read - that technology's use is only consumerist in nature. It is to some degree, but connection and dissemination are its core competencies, so to speak.

Matt Keene said...

The crippling stomach punch inflicted upon totalitarian regimes, who prior to the advent of the Internet had little more to do than jam VOA to control information, is the WWW's greatest achievement. The days of keeping entire populations in inpenetrable darkness are over....

TSB said...

I think he's saying that the Internet is different in degree - faster, easier, etc. - rather than "new" in the way that movable type (plus wide-spread literacy) was new, or in the way that the Industrial Revolution was really a revolution in human affairs.

After twenty years of the Internet, I still don't see the new part. Actually, my pet theory is that the great connectedness and dissemination of it all re-creates the situation we had back before mass production and mass communications homogenized society. We used to have neighborhood stores, regional and ethnic/linguistic specific products, many competing local newspapers and radio stations, very local entertainment venues, and so forth. Now we have that again, in a virtual sense, with e-marketing, Skype, social media, podcasting, even homeschooling.

The internet is killing mass marketing and mass communications, which I count as a good thing. It is also killing the political systems that depend on large top-down institutions and favoring individuals and small groups. This is one place where I think the Marxists are right: society's economic base drives its political superstructure.

TSB said...


Government control of information is pretty much a thing of the past, which is definitely good. Not even China or Saudi Arabia makes a great effort to block internet access anymore.

That doesn't mean regimes can't stay in power anyway, or that they can't use new media to their own advantage. See Evgeny Morozov, for example, on that:

Here's an odd bit of historical trivia. When Lenin was told that the new Bolshevik regime was planning to put a telephone in every Russian village in order to modernize the peasantry, he replied that the idea of every peasant having access to a telephone was the most counterrevolutionary thing he could imagine. That's pretty much the situation totalitarians face today. They're dealing with it, but the tide is running against them.