Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jarvis In, Jarvis Out

Those who have been longtime followers of this blog know that for whatever reason it early on became fixated on Jeff Jarvis. But there was always the question of,  OK, but he is Jeff Jarvis and you are TTPB. So you know naught and he knows much. Ergo, know thy place. (Just snipe.)

The New Republic has published a review of Jarvis' new book, "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live," written by Evgeny Morozov, who admittedly is the author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." Clearly the battle lines are drawn.

To me, Morozov does a wonderful takedown of Jarvis' view that the link economy, the conversation, the very netness of the net, constitute a door into a new realm of human understanding and probable happiness. But the point is not that Morozov's views are close to mine in terms of Internet utopianism and the dark cloud it has left over businesses such as newspapers, which lost their mojo in the face of its orthodoxy of "the future," one, inevitable, inescapable, and undeniable.

The point is that this is a debate between clear points of view, without the one feeling it must cringe and apologize for its backwardness or obtuseness or whatever before daring to present its thus fatally weakened case. This review takes the position that Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Chris Anderson, etc. represent a point of view that has some validity, has many weaknesses, does not respond well to having its positions challenged, and wrongly sees itself as the avatar of The People when in fact it is largely interested in promoting some people (those who espouse it).

And yes, it may simply be coincidence that the rise of the belief in Internet utopianism followed in short order the final collapse (in most places except Nepal) of belief in communism as the expression of the will of the masses, as the rejection of the opiates of the people, as the embodiment of historically determined progress. Or it may not. But that impulse is part of human nature and has to go somewhere. As Morozov notes in asking why books like Jarvis' are so sought after by the bewildered public: "What better way to make sense of it all than to claim that the source of their perplexity is in fact a part of some inexorable historical process that has been unfolding for centuries?" Mr. Zuckerberg, there is a gentleman here, name of Marx, who wishes to talk to you.

Morozov quotes the novelist Chuck Klosterman as saying: "The degree to which anyone values the Internet is proportional to how valuable the Internet makes that person." This is true whether it is simply the Webmaster for a small organization or the prophet of what is proclaimed as an unavoidable revolution. The first is a person with a good job that cannot easily be filled; the second is, well, a prophet seeking followers. Morozov writes, "Internet intellectuals like to tell companies and governments what they like to hear -- including the kind of bad news that is really good news in disguise (you are in terrible shape, but if you only embrace the Internet, all your problems will be gone forever!)" 

In the newspaper business, unmanned by instant electronic communication -- Tony Ridder's nightmare of 1996, free online classified, having come to pass -- the prospect of a universal solution was too good to pass by. A decade later, newspapers still can't figure out what to do, as their problems continue. To which Jarvis would have an answer, and he would be partly right: You did not fully embrace the Internet. But even if they had, they would simply have had a different set of problems that they had even less experience in trying to solve. There is a difference between using a technology and surrendering in its seductive embrace.

Like anyone else, TTPB is happy to find someone with respectable credentials who upholds its position. And it regrets once telling a colleague that the Internet was "the future," as it is still fashionable in newspaper circles to say. The Internet is part of the future. There were people who hoped it would just go away, and they were pretty silly in the end. But the future is the future. The Internet does not necessarily determine or program the future, although those who see in it the New Jerusalem can tell us how they feel it inevitably must be done. We can follow that advice if we want; or we can evaluate it against other advice. Perhaps we are getting to a point where we will again see the Internet as one useful technology among many and not the long-awaited moment that makes straight of the way of the Lord, whatever Lord that is.

1 comment:

Perry Gaskill said...

Megan Garber at Niemanlab took some hits last week when she did a post on the Jarvis/Morozov flap and said that Morozov was 90 percent wrong in his criticism. My personal opinion was that Morozov was about 90 percent right, and Jeff Jarvis didn't seem to help his case with a thinly annotated version of the original TNR review.

Where Morozov seems to have gotten it wrong is in dumping "Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Don Tapscott, Jay Rosen, Robert Scoble, Seth Godin, Nick Denton, Umair Haque, Arianna Huffington, Doc Searls, John Perry Barlow, Steven Johnson" all into the same general bin. Clay Shirky, for example, can sometimes be smart to the point of being spooky; you might not agree with him always, but the level of thinking that goes on is usually at a high level. Robert Scoble, on the other hand, tends to bounce from one shiny new thing to another, and finds it all good.

Although some of this stuff can veer into the realm of angels dancing on pins, you might find interesting a 2006 essay by Jaron Lanier, someone whose techno chops are very much in order, who calls into question what he sees as "the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective" in the online world. In it, Lanier points out that the "hive mind" can be good for certain things but only within limited boundaries. Jarvis' concept of publicy, at least as articulated in his blog BuzzMachine, seems a close cousin to the rise of the hive mind, but has never seemed to have reached a serious understanding of the potential downside.

Here's the link to the Lanier essay: