Right, I’ll admit it – I find this whole enterprise remarkably creepy.
The internet has gone through a few clearly defined phases in its short and storied history:
First it was used primarily by the military and highly technocratic scientists as CERN, MIT and other well funded institutions. Putting computers together to solve a problem seemed like a good idea at the time… I, personally, compare this to the very early days of Marconi wireless transmissions (ca. 1897-1918).
Then, as home computing became bigger and bigger, techno-geeks everywhere wanted on to bulletin boards and text based interactivity became the height of the computing experience. Phone lines weren’t prepared for this technological innovation, and people who were online were viewed with some suspicion. What are they doing on there? What do they know that we don’t? I compare this to the heady, crazy days of free-for-all radio transmission (ca.1919-1926), when everyone with a operator’s set and a transmitter thought that they should broadcast to the world! That, of course, was put to an end in the US in 1927, with the creation of the FRC.
By the time grunge was beginning to realize that it no longer belonged in clubs, pictures found their way onto the net and a new level of interactivity was achieved. The pornographer’s wet dream had been achieved: how to get filthy images to hundreds of thousands of horny teenaged boys of all ages without forcing them to come down to a central distribution hub where they would feel shame and self disgust at even entering the doors? With this new so-called “internet,” pornographers developed a business model that was later picked up by such dot com success stories as Amazon. (Not that I have anything against Amazon, I’m just saying is all…) It’s here that the history of radio and the history of the net start to seriously diverge. The business model of early network radio was utterly different than the successful business model employed by the successful dot coms.
Then, after the dot com bubble burst, after Bart Simpson became of age to join the army, and around the time Shock and Awe became a nauseatingly familiar part of our lexicon, Web 2.0 appeared. Here, the culture of the net changed again. If you wanted to put your favourite pictures of Snookums the Cat to share with the world, instead of having to learn html or xml coding you could just put yourself together one of these handy dandy little “blogs” and there you go. This led, inevitably, to such cultural monoliths as lolCatz, the phenomenon of Wikis, Facebook, Myspace and the idea that now the Net was democratized. Now no one has to look at the geeks on their phone lines wondering what they were doing or how they were doing it.
Now, I’m not going to say anything particularly new here: Those who believe that the net is now somehow better because of Web 2.0 are crazy. This is not because too many people are putting up lame pictures of cats (though I think that there’s only so many cat pictures that anyone can possibly care about); nor is this because Facebook, Windows Messenger and other programs are evil for keeping your information long after you’ve gone offline. Rather, one of the fundamental aspects of modern culture as it has developed since the 1500s is being ripped out from underneath us and that is the quality of conscience.
What I am here calling “conscience” can be termed many ways – interiority, privacy, subjectivity… The point is that the modern conception of the self is changing from one where the individual is capable of smiling and murdering whiles s/he smiles (My thanks to Shakespeare), to one where the individual is the sum total of their external markers. What group have you joined on Facebook? What pages have you given your thumbs up to on StumbleUpon? What car do you drive?
This is a logical outgrowth of certain kinds of marketing, to be sure, where the individual is described in terms of the tribes that they belong to. This movement towards reductionism is something that we should be cautious of as a culture. (For more on tribes, check out this article.)
The most insidious aspect of the crisis of conscience that I see at play in modern internet culture is the blog. This is why I am so torn about having one, and why I feel it is incumbent on me to rail so strongly against the medium I am myself employing. The blog encourages people to put their conceptions of who they are online for all to see. We have all read the horrible poetry that people write in their personal blogs. I shudder to remember it. Encouraging the individual to put their self conceptions out into the world for comment and judgment is a form of governance by proxy. It is the panopticon taken to bizarre new heights.
That said, the shift has already happened. The reductionist objectivism of the blog is indeed happening, no matter what I think of it. Non-participation in a cultural occurance is not resistance, it is ignorance. As such, there has to be a way to do some culture jamming here. There has to be a way to anti-blog.
I don’t care that your blog says you have moved to China and these are your nice pictures of the Forbidden City. I don’t care that you have blogged that you have fallen in love with a new girl/boy and written a bad sonnet about it. I don’t care that your blog is a hit, I don’t care if it is not written by anyone. What I do care about is that you feel that you have to tell the whole world about your inner life – that you seek their approval – that you aren’t going outside for some Vitamin D.
I do, however, see some hope. There are many excellent blogs out there. Feministing and feministe are excellent sites, for example. Nevertheless, my worries remain whenever I hear people talk about the liberatory power of the internet, or the political revolution that is made possible through new technologies. It is as though they haven’t thought about the reactionary politics at play in some of the most basic tools of modern net discourse. I’m not sure what to make of it – but there you are.