But I Like Google…

My first full day of classes, I stayed late to hear a lecture on Web 2.00 and some of its controversies. Web 2.00 is given the beginning date of 2003, when the web became more interactive. Before that, users of the internet were passive consumers of the information presented. After 2003, sites like Amazon began to rely more on features like customer reviews, and sites like Wikipedia gained major popularity. The internet was suddenly more than just a repository for quick-access information; it was a game of participation, where anyone could play. Or that is the idea that I got from the talk.

With the Web 2.00 boom, as it were, and as popular the wiki pages and social network sites like Facebook have become, there is little consensus on what effect it will ultimately have on life and culture as we understand it today. Some see it as a panacea: Web 2.00 will foster communication and environmental awareness and ultimately world peace. Others see Web 2.00 as a juggernaut intent on the destruction of the foundation of our culture. Or theirs anyway.

The rest, and most likely the majority, fall somewhere between these two extremes. What the internet has become is changing the way people interact with the world, and how they expect to interact with information. This could be bad and it could be good, but without research and objectivity, it is difficult to tell. We are still in the midst of this revolution, and it is probable that we will not know until far in the future what effect this has had on us.

During the lecture, we saw one detractor named Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur on a clip from an interview on the Colbert Report. His concerns, as others’, center primarily on the lack of control over what is released by Web 2.00. With this new web, it is not just the educated and the trained who can offer information. It is designed for everyone, whatever level of competence, to put up whatever may cross their minds. Colbert accused him of being elitist and relegating the bloggers and nearly everyone else not classified as elitist to pig farmers. His response: “What’s wrong with that?”

Well, he makes quite a few other points related to this primary viewpoint. And so I’d like to address my thoughts on Web 2.00 primarily in response to Keen’s interview, and the other points made during the lecture. I hate to subordinate the lecture, but Keen was a fascinating study, and it’s hard to try not to respond only directly to him, especially as I could see how some of his points would make sense, and to a certain extent, that I even could agreed with.

Take, for example, his “what’s wrong with that?” Much as I hate to say it, there are plenty of people who just don’t think, posting on the World Wide Web. Sometimes it feels like there should be some kind of gatekeeper keeping all this…junk…away from my sight. Because it hurts to read it. It hurts.

But then there will be a lot you, the élite, miss. Simply because someone has been educated, they do not necessarily have taste or discrimination. There were likely many people, over many generations, who could have had great things to say, and never gotten the chance. And people who were not from the cult of Dead White Males. Jane Austen for example, though now dead, and probably white, was still a woman. But for not having ever lived far from home, or experienced what most would call adventure, she still managed to make a profound study of the people who lived around her, and the society in which she was born. Her sister burned many of her letters after her death. She must have had much more to say that we will never hear.

Keen does seem to be supporting, if implicitly, the Dead White Male English literature canon. They have traditionally been the ones who were themselves the gatekeepers, and so they let their friends through. Many of their friends have since fallen from fame, and have been replaced by others we, or newer gatekeepers—I myself am not yet one, if I will ever be—have found to be far more interesting and talented. Just because something has survived for a long time doesn’t mean it should have.

While the stories of women and pretty much any nationality other than European may not have survived, we did get Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which I remember reading for an early English survey class. I really wasn’t a fan. Frankly, to me it read as though it were a fan fiction. If you haven’t heard the term before, it is the name of works fans write using the characters and/or the situations of previously published works. Some can be good and others…not so much. This is where I would appreciate someone gate keeping, although often the groups themselves (known as fandoms) will often do so—just not what you might like to read. At any rate, that’s how it felt to read Le Morte d’Arthur. Compared to the Canterbury Tales, which admittedly, is probably not fair, Malory’s work simply doesn’t come off well. I should note here, though, that it has been several years since I last read it, and my opinion, should I read it now, may be entirely different. However mypoint is actually that the age, or “canon-ity,” of a work does not greatness make.

Another issue that Keen takes exception to in the Web 2.00 world is the way it puts artists out of work. But this argument doesn’t really work for me either. For a long time, creating art was just another form of workmanship. When the Greeks and Romans created statues, the Greek artisans rarely signed their names. Then the Romans copied them. It was another trade. Then came the Renaissance (after the Dark Ages), and though the artists signed their names now, it was still a trade. The most famous and in-demand, such as Rubens, had whole workshops, where their only brushwork on a painting might be the signature. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, art wasn’t a craft that could be mechanized, and the idea of the “starving artist” really came into being. So here Keen might have a point…but the digital revolution is at least one social revolution too late to blame for stealing from the artists. Online theft does occur, but by opening access does more for artists than trying to break into exclusive galleries without contacts.

I apologize for the rapid and confused lecture on art though. Still, for covering several thousand years in a paragraph, it could be worse.

A major objection to the beginning of Web 2.00 was how individuals could suddenly make their own history, and rewrite others. This practice is most especially expressed in Wikipedia, another site Andrew Keen, I think it would be safe to say, despises. But though user-edited content can be problematic (take, for instance Senator Kennedy’s seizure misinformation) the problem is usually caught fairly soon. In the senator’s case, a few hours. A print encyclopedia does not have that same flexibility. An example I like, though it’s not current, comes from a book I’m reading called The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski. The pencil was not always a stick of graphite surrounded by wood. Originally it meant a small, thin brush. But it’s difficult to trace the true history of the pencil because it is so often not discussed. Though the idea of the “lead” pencil as envisioned today began likely sometime in the early 1700’s or even far earlier,the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1771, “which claimed in its subtitle to be a ‘dictionary of the arts and sciences,’ could still totally ignore the black-lead instrument in its definition of ‘pencil.’” And after quoting the pencil section, the reader learns that the Encyclopaedia Britannica didn’t even have an entry for “pen”.

Though there are many other issues I could discuss here; in fact, there are many that I really wished to, the problem that Keen and others have is that culture changes, and it is always difficult to see the coming change and not know what the final outcome will be. There have always been the “conservatives” who simply don’t trust the next generation with the works they’ve created.

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Well, Plato, in two thousand years they get blogs. And the man in your position will write blogs about how he talks about how terrible blogs are in his book.

Sorry, Keen, I was trying to be fair. But when I saw how many blog posts you have on Amazon, I did snort a bit with amusement. But I do appreciate your dedication to such a “loathsome” medium*.

*He wrote that here. It’s at the end.

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