The Net effect
“On or about December, 1910,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “the world changed.” Sometime during the early aughts of this century, it changed again. The Internet leveled our cultural landscape. There was an epistemological free-for-all, a paradigm shift. The pyramid of media hierarchy flipped -- top down became bottom up -- and people-powered content started to change the way we think.
In 2002, I owned a small independent publisher, Context Books. That year, we published a beer coaster of a book titled “War on Iraq.” The substance was a hybrid: part-book, part-blog. Former U.N. Special Commission inspector Scott Ritter had spent the summer of 2002 telling anyone who would listen that President Bush was going to start a war in Iraq and that it would end in disaster. We boiled that down into a punchy project -- concept to bookshelf: eight weeks. Six months later, the president was on TV telling America about the war he’d just launched.
What we did in 2002 is now an everyday occurrence on user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia (founded in 2001), Daily Kos (launched in 2002), MySpace (launched in 2003) and Facebook (launched in 2004). Internet users have very specific notions about what they want to know. But in this new world of mob-rules media, how do we know if what we’re reading is quality news, junk opinion or psychotic confabulation?
It used to be that the printing press was the final arbiter, a micro-layer of ink adding heft to words. Certain websites can do the same thing (the Christian Science Monitor just announced plans to go to a Web-only daily publication model), but there remains a chasm between virtual texts and their printed counterparts.
In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled “As We May Think.” It was about a hypothetical machine called the Memex, a mechanized desk attached to microfiche scrolls that could potentially store entire libraries.
Sixty-three years later, the Atlantic featured another essay, by Nicholas Carr, called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer was an emphatic, if not altogether wistful, “Yes.”
Many old-schoolers fear that the Internet means the end of them. For the rest of us, suggests Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the political website the Daily Kos, “Google makes it possible to learn anything, near instantaneously. Like natural selection, there are species that adapt to the changing environment around them and thrive, and others die off.”
Google allows one to riffle through facts, history and the pages of our culture’s collective knowledge. It is like an external hard drive containing the everyday knowledge we used to carry around in our heads. (Last week, Google announced a $125-million settlement with authors and the publishing industry for the right to scan thousands of titles and make them available online.)
While planning her most recent book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” author Diane Ackerman used the Internet “to know what animals the Warsaw Zoo kept, what animals called when, what they sounded like, smelled like, looked like and so on. ‘Gibbon calls,’ I thought. I Googled them, and heard their duets! I needed to know what birds would have been there, so I used the Internet to discover the aerial flyways over Europe in 1939. Previously, I would have made a trip to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, and spent hours there.”
In theory, a tool like Google should free us to be more creative. In reality, there are pitfalls.
Jan Frel is an editor at the progressive news site AlterNet and a cultural critic who takes a wider perspective, holding that writing in general, rather than a reliance on oral tradition, has had a deleterious effect on culture. “This is a weird aberration,” she says, “all these people writing instead of one story being written by many people.”
Frel likes the open-endedness of an Internet where “you can imagine knowledge and then find it.” But there is a downside, which, according to Frel, is rather dire: “Pretty good has become the new perfection.”
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn memorized passages of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” he had no choice but to enact the modernist version of oral traditions. This was not an expression of collective culture so much as an extreme example of what T.S. Eliot called “the individual talent.”
Today’s blogs are a mutation of Solzhenitsyn’s modernist mythmaking -- where the merely personal becomes a matter of permanent record. Increasingly, mainstream writers cite blogs. Political journalists use them as sources. According to CommonSenseMedia.org, 74% of journalists recently surveyed regularly read blogs, and 84% “say they would or already have used blogs as a primary or secondary source for articles.”
“A seasoned reader,” Crooks andLiars.com founder John Amato claims, “can learn more about a political issue than a person who sticks to the old-style pros.”
A closer look at “The Zookeeper’s Wife” provides a snapshot of what’s missing on the Net. Ackerman did a lot of old-school research. “I read a sea of books, interviews and testimonies -- by and about people who witnessed the Holocaust -- and I studied World War II history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films and such,” she says. “Some of that I could find on the Internet, but not much; most of it meant reading books, some of which I had to have translated.”
Books require a different sort of communion with one’s subject than the Internet. They foster a different sort of memory -- more tactile, more participatory. I know more or less where, folio-wise, Eliot gets nasty about the Jews in his infamous 1933 lecture series “After Strange Gods,” but I always have to read around a bit to find the exact quote, and the time spent softens the bite of his anti-Semitism because the hateful remarks were made amid smart ones. For literary works, books are still, and most likely always will be, indispensable.
But not all nonfiction requires that depth. I asked “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen Dubner how the Internet is changing writing and more generally the way we think.
“The crabbiness,” he says, “that emanates from a certain breed of thinker/writer -- a breed that I generally admire, by the way -- about how the Internet’s cornucopia of information is destroying book culture is based on fear of change more than anything. Most people don’t even like to change the part in their hair; asking them to accept a change in the way words are disbursed through culture is a bit much.”
Moulitsas adds: “We no longer have to depend on so-called or self-appointed experts to tell us what we should think.”
Or we have to do it less than we did a few years ago. The self-appointed experts are blogging on the Daily Kos. Things are shifting.
I remember feverishly pitching “War on Iraq” in 2002. When I pushed one editor to assign it for review, he snapped: “It’s not a book, and I’m not going to assign it.”
The irony: It had been on his paper’s list of bestselling nonfiction books for weeks.
When I began to think about this essay I listed all the writers I’d like to talk to about how the Internet is changing the way we think and write. The first person was Donald McKenzie, a fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford University. I took his course on bibliography and hypertext in the early 1990s, when the Internet was a baby.
I Googled him, only to discover that he’d died in 1999. One more click and I found a portrait of McKenzie in the permanent collection of the National Library of New Zealand. Looking at it, I was transported back to a cool autumn day in Oxfordshire, the windows open, a modern room in the ancient city. McKenzie held a book fanned open on his upturned palms, fantastically engaged. “This is remarkable technology,” he said with a whiff of his native New Zealand accent. “A wafer-thin sheet of paper, yet so much information.”
I found McKenzie, mourned him, and revisited Brideshead in about three minutes. Without Internet access, this could have taken weeks. I had not stayed in touch with him, although I referred to his insights from time to time -- particularly the way he saw television, the Internet, e-mail and every other transient mode of communication stored in his ideal library system, one that trounced Vannevar Bush’s Memex.
McKenzie’s ideal library was the World Wide Web. His first speculative talk on the subject was a British Library Panizzi Lecture in 1986, four years before Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the first World Wide Web server in Geneva, Switzerland.
“The Internet is a volume in our library,” Ackerman says, “a colorful, miscellaneous, and serendipitous one -- but not a replacement for books, and certainly not an alternative to spending time in the world and just paying attention to things.” Moulitsas believes it’s the future, and the old guard needs to get with the times.
For the time being, both of them are right.