Thinking and the internet (1)

Lots of interesting ideas in the Edge survey about how the internet has changed the way people think.

From Hans Ulrich Obrist’s response:

In the years before being online, I remember that there were many interruptions by phone and fax day and night. The reality of being permanently linked to the triggered my increasing awareness of the importance of moments of concentration — moments without interruption that require me to be completely unreachable.

We need to make a deliberate effort to disconnect ourselves from a particular form of mediated reality. Once we needed to make the same deliberate effort to connect ourselves. It’s disconcerting to be caught in the middle of that shift. We have been trained humanistically to want to “only connect” as E.M. Forster put it, but what is becoming clear is that the medium through which that connection with others is made matters a lot. Connection has lost its old meaning. Must modify that dictum to remove the networking connotations of the language and restore some sense of organic interaction. “Look people in the eyes.”

Obrist is also alert to the paradox of memory and online sharing: “The ever growing ever pervasive records that the Internet produces make me think sometimes about the virtues of forgetting. Is a limited life space of certain information and data becoming more urgent?” What we share becomes forgettable; we are in danger of failing to nurse our own memories and of losing the capability to be selective. With that we lose the ability to make meaning for our lives our of our own experiences rather than brands and products and social signifiers. He quotes Rem Koolhaas as arguing that the secret agenda of the information age is systematic forgetting. I take that to mean that the information age renders our remembered self irrelevant, and forces us to be in a continual process of making new selves from moment to moment. Related, this from artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik’s response:

As John Berger pointed out, the nature of photography is a memory device that allows us to forget. Perhaps something similar can be said about the Internet. In terms of art, the Internet expands the network of reproduction that replaces the way we “know” something. It replaces experience with facsimile.

From Clay Shirky’s response:
“Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.” A good point, but slightly misleading in that the scarcity in question that is being obviated by the internet was always an artificial product of intellectual property laws. The internet has made “collaboration” into socially acceptable code for ignoring intellectual property laws and mores. The threat to capitalism is the idea that people will begin to reject the idea that money (or property rights) is a necessary incentive to create things. “Expression” needs no incentives.

Shirky argues that the influx of amateur content into public discourse has caused a “shock of inclusion.” This has led to a loss of standards: “the average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not?” This statement hinges on how “public thought” is defined. Most people are not out to contribute to “public thought,” social networking has allowed them to participate in public meaning generation without feeling pretentious or pompous on a public stage. The key is to think about how “public thought” is constructed, what formal qualities establish the publicity of a statement beyond its simply being broadcast. That is what the internet has forced us to come to terms with. Those formal stipulations were always there, but now they are becoming overt. Journalism is appearing less as a credo, a set of practices meant to secure objectivity (long its ideological disguise) and more as a guild, a profession that wants to thrive by establishing a monopoly on what determines a “fact”.

The beneficiaries of the system where making things public was a privileged activity, whether academics or politicians, reporters or doctors, will complain about the way the new abundance of public thought upends the old order, but those complaints are like keening at a wake; the change they fear is already in the past. The real action is elsewhere.

Making things public is still a privileged activity, only the privilege being claimed is more naked, the rights to it more tenuous, the means more likely to be questioned or rejected. The danger is that “publicness” will disappear altogether in the surfeit of data. Credentialing will fall into such disrepute and disrepair that no information will achieve the level of truth.

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