Democracy in Internetia

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values
by Andrew Keen
Doubleday, 2007, 256 pages.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2008, 336 pages.

This theory is easy to demonstrate. Imagine if Shirky’s social tools were not evenly distributed in Internetia, much as the traditional media are not evenly distributed in the real world. What would happen? The few with tools would have more organizational power than the many without them, virtual strata would form, the costs of group formation would go up, and the propensity to form groups would go down. As Shirky rightly points out, such is not the case in Internetia.
As Tocqueville made clear, however, equality is not enough to spark an explosion of self-organization. You also need liberty, and this is a factor Shirky seems to have missed. Tocqueville noted that Americans were largely free from invasive meddling by a ruling class or the government. They reserved the right to organize themselves however they liked within the confines of custom and law. The same holds true in Internetia. It has no intrusive class or state. As a result, the Internetians believe that they have the right to form groups as they please and, more generally, to do whatever they like. They have complete liberty, and that makes all the difference in terms of group formation.
This, too, is easy to show. Imagine if all the customs and laws of the real world were applicable and enforceable in Internetia. Some, of course, already are: Internetians can’t hack, steal, defraud, or traffic in kiddie porn—although, as in the real world, a small number of them do—because the authorities in the real world will punish such actions no matter where they occur. But let’s imagine those authorities governed Internetia to the same extent and in the same way as they govern the real world. What would happen? The answer is plain: a lot less. For example, it is not customary in the real world to hide your identity. A person in the real world is who he is. A person in the real world who conceals her identity or has multiple identities is a fraud. In the real world, then, you are not at liberty to do and associate as you please because your reputation is on the line. If you have, for instance, a stuffed-animal fetish, then everyone will know, and that’s not good for you. The same thing would occur in Internetia if this custom were in force. Internetians would be afraid of public censure and therefore less likely to do unconventional things or join odd groups. But such is not the case. In Internetia you are practically encouraged to hide who you are, and almost everyone does. Though it may be a bit unusual to think of it this way, the “right” to hide who you are (as well as to do myriad other questionable things) is a kind of liberty.
It’s no wonder that Shirky emphasizes equality instead of liberty in his theory of Internet association. Online equality isn’t the problem. With a few exceptions—such as professional journalists who are worried that the Internetians will gather, write, and distribute the news themselves—most people agree that equal access to the Internet is a fine thing insofar as it makes sending, receiving, storing, and retrieving information cheaper and easier for the masses. The problem is online liberty, or what many critics see as online license. For whatever reason—and I think it is largely because anonymity is so easy and common online—many Internetians behave very badly by the standards of the real world. They call each other names (“flaming”), badger each other for sport (“trolling”), and steal pretty much anything they can get their hands on (copyright violation and piracy). If these miscreants acted in a similar fashion in the real world, they would be tossed out, beaten down, or locked up. But in Internetia, anything goes.
To his credit, Shirky doesn’t ignore this issue, though he doesn’t give it the attention it deserves. But he does seem to excuse most of this bad behavior. He does so with two kinds of arguments. The first is that the victory of Internetia is inevitable, and with it the bad (and good) behavior it fosters, so we’d better get used to it and learn to embrace both. The transistor and the birth control pill, he says, triumphed because “no one was in control of how the technology was used, or by whom.” People wanted them, they used them, and that’s that. Social tools are the same. Yet a sensible person might respond: The Internet may triumph, and it may enable certain kinds of bad behavior in the process, but that doesn’t make wrong right, bad good, or pigs fly. Things aren’t right because they exist, they are right because they are right.
Shirky’s second defense of Internet nastiness is that what appears to be a vice in the real world is actually a virtue in Internetia. Thus, anarchy becomes “democracy,” mob rule becomes “self-organization,” theft becomes “efficiency,” and perversion becomes harmless “freedom of expression.” These arguments are standard among Internet boosters, many of whom are smart people, but none of them are very convincing. There is nothing “democratic” about calling someone an “asshat”; self-organization is almost impossible when you can’t shut anyone up; stealing is stealing, no matter how you justify it; and it is not at all clear that ubiquitous pornography injures no one.
The fact that Shirky and other Internet advocates soft-pedal the issue of online licentiousness does them no good, because it makes them appear to be serving interests other than the truth. After all, what do we call people who exaggerate the positive and conceal the negative? They might just be starry-eyed optimists. But then again, they may be salesmen. And what would Internet boosters be selling? Well, books, of course, but also themselves. If you go to Shirky’s Web site (www.shirky.com) you can read the following:
Mr. Shirky divides his time between consulting, teaching, and writing on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. His consulting practice is focused on the rise of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, Web services, and wireless networks that provide alternatives to the wired client/server infrastructure that characterizes the Web. Current clients include Nokia, GBN, the Library of Congress, the Highlands Forum, the Markle Foundation, and the BBC.
You’ll be happy to learn that you can also hire him to speak through his agency, Monitor Talent. Now you can’t blame a guy for trying to make a buck, and I hope that Shirky’s business thrives, because he’s a very bright fellow. The trouble is that Here Comes Everybody makes Shirky look a bit like a pitchman for his Internet consultancy in particular and Internet consultancies in general. He seems to be saying, “Internetia is a wondrous place full of possibilities and opportunities. Of course, there are a few pitfalls. But with my help, you and your business can prosper there.” Let me say this: Were I trying move my business onto the Web, there is no one I would rather hire as a consultant than Clay Shirky, and not only because he knows everything about Internetia. It’s also because—having taken his consulting fee—he would doubtless tell me that the pitfalls of doing business in Internetia are in fact legion, and that Internetia is a lawless frontier where good reputations can be tarnished, solid brands discredited, and terabytes of material stolen in the blink of an eye. I certainly hope he would tell me this, because if he didn’t, I—or you—would be in deep digital doo-doo.
Tocqueville admired American democracy, but he was also quick to point out that it had its drawbacks. First among them was the “tyranny of the majority,” which he understood in both a political and cultural sense. Americans acknowledged no natural political leaders, i.e., they had no king or nobility. Therefore, the majority was left to decide everything regarding governance. Tocqueville didn’t like this very much. Having grown up in the shadow of the French Revolution, he knew that majorities (read: “mobs”) could destroy liberty as easily as they could enshrine it. But that wasn’t the only problem with popular rule: it could also do great damage to refinement and good taste. Americans did not recognize natural cultural authorities any more than they did natural political authorities. They had no aristocracy of learning or art. Thus the majority decided what was good and what wasn’t. Tocqueville didn’t like this very much either. He was an elitist on these matters, and had no faith that the popular will could produce or even recognize anything of scholarly or artistic merit. When it comes to American culture, he argued, the damage has already been done. Here he is on American writers:
[Their] style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over-burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.
From Tocqueville’s point of view, then, cultural populism as practiced in America was a disaster, a clear example of what happens when people confuse what is popular with what is good.
In The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen updates this critique for the age of the Web. Like Shirky, he’s journeyed to Internetia and come back with a fascinating report on its remarkable residents. But he does not tell a tale of plucky natives deftly using miraculous social tools to join forces in all kinds of interesting, productive, and profit-making ways. No, it’s a story of venal pitchmen selling egomaniacal amateurs dressed-up gadgets that permit them to abuse one another, create all kinds of digital rubbish, and steal copyrighted material with impunity—all in the name of “democracy.” The pitchmen in question are Silicon Valley’s Web 2.0 moguls Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Chad Hurley, along with its intellectual gurus Tim O’Reilly, Chris Anderson, and Lawrence Lessig. Keen argues that their Internet boosterism is either sorely misguided or completely hypocritical. Most of them, he says, are in it for the money and willing to say just about anything to make sure the cash keeps flowing. Keen calls this the “great seduction.” The egomaniacal amateurs in question seem to be the direct descendants of Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century American philistines. They are cocksure that they can tell good from bad—even though they can’t—and are impulsively driven by their own foolish pride to use the Internet to tell anybody and everybody what they think about things they can neither appreciate nor understand. The result is an army of narcissistic ugliness and stupidity marching ever onward under the banner of “self-expression” and “wise crowds.” The noble amateur, Keen says, is “a digitalized version of Rousseau’s noble savage, representing the triumph of innocence over experience, of romanticism over the commonsense wisdom of the Enlightenment.” The gadgets in use are easily recognizable as Shirky’s social tools, except in Keen’s opinion they are nothing but instruments of self-aggrandizement, pseudo-understanding, and mass pilfering. He laments, for instance, that “digital piracy and illegal file-sharing from services like BitTorrent, eDonkey, DirectConnect, Gnutella, LimeWire, and SoulSeek have become the central economic reality in the record business.” And, he adds, they are destroying it.

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