Why the Web Is Disappointing
THE WORLD Wide Web became popular on a wave of general optimism. The idea was that this network would give anyone with a computer equal and free access to unprecedented stores of knowledge.
What public libraries did to democratize knowledge, the internet would do – but faster, better, and more cheaply.
This new medium would break the monopolies of the big media companies. People would eventually stop watching TV, stop reading magazines, and stop caring about Hollywood.
Peer to peer file sharing would make copyright enforcement impossible. Cheap digital tools would unleash the creativity of the masses. The un-censorable network would transform people who would’ve otherwise been television drones into knowledgeable digital citizens.
Anyone who wanted it could have a platform to speak truth to power.
How many of these assumptions have turned out to be accurate, and how many have melted away?
The web as it has evolved over time
During the initial web bubble in the 1990s, investors assumed that people would access the web through a variety of ‘portals’ like Yahoo and America Online.
This assumption has largely turned out to be correct, even though the term has fallen out of use.
People mostly discover new websites and documents through the new portals – a search engine that uses machine learning and an army of engineers to constantly tweak its popularity-based page ranking system called Google and a service called Facebook that, like America Online, makes it easy for even non-technical people to message their friends and share links with them.
The method by which this portal ranks different pages is complicated, but it also boils down to ranking based on popularity. The service also drives human attention to popular things with s0me modifications for personalization.
This service mostly tries to keep people on their website for as long as possible in order to serve more ads to them. There are some other smaller portals which are more specialized ways of delivering links and files to people, just like in older iterations of the web.
The web has expanded, but people remain the same
One of the fundamental assumptions behind the utopian ambitions of the web was that greater access to media would make people into better versions of themselves, and thereby improve society.
This improved access to media was thought to closely correlate with greater access to useful and entertaining knowledge.
What it does do is make media more accessible. Those media files may or may not be useful feedstock for knowledge. It’s difficult for most people to tell the difference between stimulating fluff and useful material.
One critical issue is that knowledge is carefully wrapped up in human memory rather than the computerized variety. People who are genuinely knowledgeable have to combine experience with memorized information to be able to perform useful tasks in the real world – whether it’s to give a speech that persuades a crowd, change a tire, or apply a tourniquet to a hemorrhaging wound.
That it’s easier to access information of variable quality about any conceivable subject is true. What isn’t true is that that accessibility has much impact on the ability of people to become more knowledgeable.
If anything, the opposite happens – because people believe that they can retrieve relevant information from the internet whenever they need to, it creates the illusion that the painstaking accumulation of real knowledge and skill is no longer necessary.
TV remains more culturally relevant
As the internet has matured, the influence of professionally-made television hasn’t died away – it has, in fact, increased.
Rather than peer to peer networks destroying media companies, they have instead proven largely irrelevant. Part of the reason for this is that companies like Facebook have enlisted that peer to peer communication in the cause of spreading the centralized corporate culture that early internet thinkers expected the new culture to rout around.
Mostly misfits and youths drove early internet growth – the masses weren’t terribly interested in changing how they spent their leisure time.
Further, the internet portals – fueled by fraud-and-mismeasurement beset ad technology – tend to promote popular free media which are also written to an even lower level than a typical print tabloid newspaper.
Rather than forming a new counterculture, many people use the web as a sort of advanced peer-to-peer version to TV Guide. According to Nielsen, the average American still watches over 35 hours of TV per week. Younger generations who were sold as ‘digital natives’ may spend less time on conventional TV, but they more than make up for it by watching app-based TV with similar content.
The counter-culture is mainstream culture
The ‘counter-culture’ is in power. It finally deposed the last vestiges of authority that the legacy of Western Civilization enjoyed some time in the late 1960s. To the extent that the internet was supposed to extend its authority, it has succeeded.
The error then was less in the prediction that the internet would be a counter-cultural, nihilistic force – but in the idea that the counter-culture could ever be a positive force for general improvement.
An increase in the availability of information does not necessarily increase the amount of usable knowledge in society.
Information can be both true and false – and given that it’s much easier to manufacture false information than the true kind, it ought to be unsurprising that it clogs the distribution channels of the web.
Further, the counter-culture teaches that discrimination and cultivation of all kinds are suspicious. The universal encyclopedia, accessible to everyone, can substitute for the knowledge that can only come from hard-won experience and study. Experts and authorities can be replaced by procedures, and those procedures can be enforced by bureaucratic institutions.
Technology has only a limited ability to transform people
No one can deny that modern farming technology can feed more people, nor that trains are faster than horses, nor that networked computers can’t transmit an electronic book faster than a rider for the Pony Express could deliver one.
What’s often traded off for in mass technology is quality – our technologies tend to make it possible to serve larger numbers of people at a decreased level of quality. To get quality, people need to give up more resources to access it.
The accessibility of Amazon Kindle trades off in terms of quality and customization of typography for publishers, as well as the incredible fidelity of print fonts.
The ease of downloading an article from a web publication makes it trivial for people to access specialized news – but it also undermines the economics that made it possible to fund cheap publications through advertising and subscription fees. The incredible productivity of genetically modified crops trades off on the nutritional value, flavor, and distinction of heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Further, all technologies carry hidden costs. Cars kill incredible numbers of people each year. It has even been argued by certain reactionaries that the rushing about that it encourages destroys the ability of the motoring public to enjoy life at all.
We may be able to project moving images around the world to tiny computers carried around by billions of people, but those same individuals become mentally obese by binging on what’s accessible in the same way as they become physically obese by eating too much processed food.
Making the most of what we have
Given that it’s challenging to change the whole of society in a positive way, the best that we can do as individuals and communities is to be discriminating about how we use technology, how we think about it, and how much we commit to big prophecies about what technology can really accomplish for us.
In particular, technological predictions tend to be either utopian or apocalyptic. The historical record shows that technological changes tend to be more complex.
The other difficulty involved with technological advances – to the extent that they can be maintained – tend to force all competing countries and civilizations to adopt them in order to survive. The choice about whether or not to adopt a given technology often becomes a non-choice under competitive pressures. Cultures that elect not to adopt certain effective technologies can only survive as protectorates of ones that do.
The web is no different. Just as it requires self-control to avoid eating lots of Oreos, it requires self-control to discriminate between junk-quality information and material worth reading.
The counter-culture continually revolts against itself. It thrives by using people – filling them with junk, and then discarding them. Instead, we should look out for the people that we serve – to fortify that civilized remnant to the best of our abilities.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the comments on this thoughtful piece on Social Matter also deserve to be carried here. Some writers were more optimistic on the potential of the Internet, others far more pessimistic.
Anti-Dem wrote “All true, to an extent. The thing is, you’re measuring the internet’s aggregate effect, instead of its effect on the right people.
“Look, plebs gonna pleb. Give a beautiful home library to a pleb, and within a month, it will be strewn with McDonalds wrappers, and a first-edition copy of Great Expectations will be in use as a tray on which to pass around Doritos. That’s just how plebs are. The idea that more education and access to knowledge can transform plebs into aristocrats of the soul was the 19th century Progressive conceit on which the creation of the public school system hinged. How’d that work out for us?
“(It’s worth noting that television itself was originally conceived as a primarily educational tool – the common man’s front-row seat at the finest ballets, poetry readings, and university lectures. This vision of its utility didn’t go any better than the public schools before it or the internet after it.)
“So it’s useless to worry about what the plebs did with the internet. If they use it for Facebook, Netflix, and porn, well, again, plebs gonna pleb. The internet didn’t transform them, television didn’t transform them, the schools didn’t transform them – nothing will transform them. They are what they are, and they always will be.
“More important is the question of what the effects of the internet have been on those who are natural aristocrats of the soul. The alt-right wouldn’t exist without the internet. With ironclad control of all media of any significance in the hands of the Establishment (which, as you mentioned, is controlled by the leftists who once were countercultural), and with barriers to entry too high for non-millionaires to overcome, the message would never be allowed to get out. With the internet available to us, the right people are able to find each other, to pass around ideas, and, maybe most importantly of all, to learn that they aren’t alone. I cannot tell you how many times I heave heard from someone on the alt-right: “I used to think I was the only person who thought any of these things”.
“That is its utility, and it is that for which we should be grateful. As for the plebs, don’t waste your time worrying about what they’re up to.”
Frank Gappa wrote “It is breathtaking to me how quickly things have changed and how PC we have become. I thank Henry for making me realize what the true cause of that has been — the Internet!
“There is no doubt that the Internet has aided the leftist causes. Where once an issue like transgenderism would be relegated to academic and non-conformist circles, activism on this subject is now spread to all corners of society. Add on top of that the weapon of social shaming via social media and you quickly lose your ability to argue these concepts in a forthright way.
“The Right loses most of the time because many of our ideas represent the harsh realities of life, they aren’t always the most ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ ideas but are necessary for a well functioning society. Before the Internet, one could safely express their conservative ideals to family and society and have it accepted as practical experience, time tested. Now, with life in real time the Left are quick to pounce to show how ‘prejudiced’ or whatever term they think applies.
“Society has essentially become a Liberal college’s classroom, where once you just had to endure four years of the brainwashing now it is parroted across all the media 24/7/365. The only hope is to continue speaking to children about what is important and lay a strong framework in the home; this is so important for children so they know they can combat the proselytizing and think for themselves in adulthood.”
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Source: Social Matter