Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

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Location: New England, United States

Monday, December 18, 2006

You've Got To Be Kidding...

You've got to be kidding me.

Seriously.

I mean, really. When Time Magazine names "You" as their Man of the Year, I know the world has truly gone mad.

I mean, look at this article! What kind of Populist Fantasy World does Lev Grossman live in? Does he seriously think that this was the Year of the Common Man? And that the Internet has become a tool for popular change? Wake up, Lev. He quotes YouTube and Wikipedia and the profligration of blogs as examples of how the average joe has conquered, and can now have control of his destiny. Hoo boy. I hate to burst your bubble, there, Lev, but I look at YouTube and Wikipedia and the profligration of blogs, and I come to the exact opposite conclusion.

(And yes, I am aware that I'm a Blogger. The irony of me using my blog to complain about bloggers is not lost on me. Stay with me.)

The Internet WAS a wonderful idea, once upon a time. WAS. In the early 90s, I was caught up in the idealistic view of it myself. This, thought a younger, less cynical me, was truly the greatest of Humanity's works. This was pure information, exchange of ideas in their most basic forms. Why, you could conceivably talk to ANYONE, ANYWHERE! It was going to be so cool! Suddenly the world got a lot smaller. Distance, nationality, language...none of it mattered any more. We were all going to be part of the Global Village. Man, it would have been great if it had actually happened that way.

Flash forward a decade or so. What do we have? Are people communicating? Is there a free exchange of ideas? Not really, no. You only have to read some YouTube user comments (and to his credit, Grossman makes reference of this in his article) to realize where communication has gone. The major selling point of the electronic medium is speed, after all; I can recall the early days of AOL, where you needed fast fingers to even get noticed. And of course, we often exchange accuracy for speed. The faster we type, the less coherent our words. Thus was born "leet," a culture and a language that EMBRACED grammatical error. Cuz, you know, mispelling words is so darn cool. Or perhaps I should say, "kewl." And with that was born the notion that it doesn't matter if people can actually understand what you're trying to say, so long as you respond quickly and loudly.

It takes no great deductive leap to see how that has affected modern culture as a whole. We now expect things to be delivered fast, whether it be information, or customer service, or social interaction. As a society we have no patience. We want things NOW, and if we don't get them we get genuninely nasty with each other. It's the notion of the "Cyber bubble": with the world viewable at our fingertips, we no longer have any burning need to go out and interact with it. I see evidence of it first-hand, whenever I venture out into the world. I have seen people have panic attacks on crowded subway trains. And I don't mean people who are visibly disturbed; I have seen ordinary, average-looking people who have no apparent mental problems, just suddenly spaz out when faced with a crush of human flesh. I have seen conversations degenerate into swearing matches at the drop of the hat, to no apparent cause to an outside observer. And I have never seen a single person on a cell phone actually having a PLEASANT conversation. It's like some great epidemic of social autism. Or something out of a WIlliam Gibson story. Modern society is on overload: we've got too much information to process, too much to deal with, and the more we try the less time we spend with each other. Human beings are simply losing the ability to be social animals.

So much for the grand dream of the Global Village. We don't talk to each other; we scream at one another while safely ensconced in our own private fortresses. And what could have been the greatest tool human civilization had ever produced has been reduced to a mere plaything; after all, if you're not using the Internet to communicate, you're using it to BUY STUFF. Collector's items, antiques, porn - traditionally the pursuits of the lonely nerd, have now become bustling mainstream industries. What is YouTube if not the world's biggest idiot box? What is eBay if not the world's biggest flea market? What are Bloggers, if not voices in the void, shouting our opinions - as articulate or as inarticulate and stupid as they are - to the world, never sure if anyone of consequence will ever hear us? We are ALL lonely nerds now, isolated from one another yet hopelessly reaching out, because we don't know how to be any other way.

It's a symptom of modern society - or at least, modern American society - that all great technologies are instantly neutered. A society composed of cowering geeks doesn't produce anything; they merely observe and consume. What good are heady dreams of space exploration or efficient renewable fuel sources or universal health care to such people? No, we don't want THAT. Give us cell phones with cameras inside, so we can film our friends at the food court! Give us handheld DVD players, so we can watch our favorite movies on the train and not make eye contact with anyone! Give us a place online where we can download the lost second season of The Pirates of Darkwater, cuz that show was teh roxor111! God forbid we use this vast array of telecommunications marvels for anything other than our own personal gratification.

Grossman goes on to talk about Thomas Carlyle's theory of the "Great Man" - the notion that real lasting social progress is dependent solely upon remarkable individuals rather than populist movements - and basically refutes it, saying that this new wonderful Age of the Common Man puts to bed the notion that humanity needs dynamic individuals to stir them up. Feh, says I. If anytihng, the current state of the Internet proves the Great Man Theory beyond a shadow of a doubt. Look at what becomes of a society with no heroes, no leaders, no real role models: we become decadent, indulgent, emotionally juvenile. We take this great thing, this Internet, and we use it to entertain ourselves in our spiritual ennui. So long as we're entertaining ourselves, we can pretend we're too busy to actually go out and do worthwhile things. It's like a Bread and Circuses thing, but in reverse: rather than it be a government-imposed measure of control, it's something we did to ourselves willingly - because the world is too big and scary to deal with.

So, Lev Grossman, I say to you: you missed the point entirely. I submit to you that yes, the Internet remains a free exchange of ideas and is a testament to free speech in action, but I caution to you to consider WHAT ideas, specifically, are being exchanged, and whether their exchange is really a good thing at all. I submit to you that yes, like the pioneers of the 19th century, in theory anyone can stake a cyber-claim and know a measure of true freedom, but I ask you to look closely at what these pioneers DO with their cyber-homesteads. I submit to you that yes, populist revolution is a great idea, but the cold hard reality is that intellect - real, genuine, dynamic intellect - is a rare thing in the human species. I ask you to shed your populist trappings and objectively consider the defining moments in human history, and see them for what they truly are: a strong-willed Great Man rising above the masses and guiding them to a a brighter day - for him personally, certainly, and also for humanity as a whole. Man is capable of great things, but not without guidance.

Call me Luddite, call me Fascist, call me Nihilist, call me Grumpy Old Man, if you will. I lay claim to all these titles and none of them; I consider myself a Student of Humanity first and foremost, and there are truths to be found in all these titles. The Internet is a great thing, and like all great things, can be used for good, for evil, or for stupid. It needs to be used for good, if humanity is to survive. And we need a Great Man to use it.

Man of the Year my geeky white butt.

6 Comments:

Blogger James said...

i think you're missing the middle ground, anarq. the masses of idiots don't have the drive required to do more than make obnoxious comments.
what freeing the means of expression does allow for is for those "great men" to express themselves more freely, without having to compromise with the guy who runs the press. and in a free marketplace they can outshine the drek.
another major factor of democratizing media is the truth can get out there. remember the uc student who was tazered and video showed up on youtube while the police were still trying to present a story that didn't match what we saw?

5:47 PM, December 19, 2006  
Blogger Anarquistador said...

But with the masses of idiots far outnumbering the Great Men, and talking louder, how are we to find the Great Men? How do we sift the crap from the worthwhile stuff? There is no efficient or reliable way to do that. Whatever worthwhile stuff gets lost in the shuffle.

The UC Student tazering was an exception to the rule. Did any maintstream media sources pick up the story? Did you see it run on CNN? It's become the favorite story of conspiracy theorist bloggers and civil liberty websites, but I'm willing to bet the average person out there either never heard about it or just doesn't care.

The fact of the matter is that the Internet as a tool for reaching people intellectually or exchanging inforation is a failure - partly because not everyone is connected, and partly because there is so much information out there and so few enforceable guidelines for accuracy that nobody knows what's real and what isn't. So rather than use it for important stuff, we just use it as a toy, and that's the tragedy.

8:49 AM, December 20, 2006  
Blogger James said...

But with the masses of idiots far outnumbering the Great Men, and talking louder, how are we to find the Great Men? How do we sift the crap from the worthwhile stuff? There is no efficient or reliable way to do that. Whatever worthwhile stuff gets lost in the shuffle.
call me old fashioned, but i like boingboing.
word of mouth, anarq. when something great comes along it spreads by word of mouth. right now the dinosaur media overpower the little guy (and i'll be out of a job when they finally die off), but when user created content doesn't have to compete with cnn you can bet that news videos like the taser incident will be viewed more.

2:38 PM, December 20, 2006  
Anonymous portraitinflesh said...

I'm probably mixing up my facts yet again (I could try to find more info online, but oh my the effort that would entail)...but wasn't the Internet originally designed for some kind of educational research/informational exchange thing among a few top universities? Big Bad Brains used it to further their studies, but eventually a few realized they could use it for less learned work. And as the Internet mutated into what it is today, it's naturally become homogenized and dummied down to where even a child can use it (which pleases a parent no end, since their child is so smart they know how to use the Internet but, golly gosh darn, the same parent often can't figure out how to do so).

The Internet may have once been focused on education and edification, but that sort of thing doesn't really give pop-up ad companies and whatnot the kind of mass market they need, so consequently most of the informative stuff is put on the back burner to make way for wonderful places that will let you look at 1,000,001 different kinds of smileys for your email.

Sure there's as time and place for entertainment...we'd go crazy if there weren't...but the Internet, like any other tool, is only as useful as the person wielding it wants it to be. So I'll just have to sit behind my ergo keyboard and see what comes along.

3:46 PM, December 20, 2006  
Blogger Ramona said...

Wait a cotton pickin' minute here...apparently I already have a Blogger account? Jeez, you never know what you'll get when you sign up for something online. Rassa frassa Internet...

3:51 PM, December 20, 2006  
Blogger Noreen Braman said...

great MAN, great MEN? Humph. Better look into that deteriorating Y chromosone. :)

9:34 PM, December 20, 2006  

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