If you haven’t seen it already, A. Lee Martinez has come out in defense of the Internet. You see, folks are bashing the poor Internet, and someone needs to come out and say how good it really is, because, after all, the Internet is wonderful and it makes things all rainbows and flowers.
Okay, so that’s an unfair look at things. I’m being facetious, or attempting to be anyway. A. Lee Martinez is right that there has been an inordinate amount of anti-Internet stuff lately. Hell, there has been anti-Internet stuff flooding the, well, Internet for a while now. See for yourself. Even The Atlantic has provided some interesting thoughts on the “it’s making us stupid” argument. The thing is, there are probably truths and falsehoods on both sides of the argument. There are real consequences for the changes the Internet has brought on us. As a teacher (new though I am), I have seen what many of these changes look like: there is an increased reluctance to “search on.” I wouldn’t say that this is somehow making us dumber so much as making us progressively more ignorant. That is a problem all on its own.
The only thing I take issue with in Martinez’s post is this:
But for all its unpleasantness, stupidity, and absurdity, the internet has done the unimaginable. It has given nearly everyone a voice. (Except for the very poor, who always, always get screwed.) It has taken the ability to express yourself and made it such a common thing that we don’t realize how amazing it is. It’s allowed us to tap the collective knowledge of mankind without having to even leave our homes.
I find it amusing that this paragraph begins with what is not necessarily “good” by default, and then ends with an overwhelming positive. Yes, the Internet has completely changed how we share knowledge, and for all the bad things that the Internet does to us (I challenge the “stupid” assertion, though), the fact that it has made information, vital and trivial, instantly available to a much larger portion of the world’s population than every before is a monumental feat. Yes, our world is still imperfect; the poor still do not have access to the Internet, even in the United States. But we’re getting there. There will be a time when almost everyone will have access. The more knowledge we have at our fingertips, the greater the possibility that we can be informed about the things that really matter. The Internet, more or less, makes that possible.
The problem, though, is this idea that providing everyone with a public voice is somehow a good thing. I challenge this notion because we have seen the consequences of this in the book world. Anyone can say anything about a book these days. There are rarely consequences for what we say, except consequences that go in the opposite direction (poor sales, for example). The “expert” opinion seems to have been supplanted by the “amateur” one. There are certainly amateurs who have valuable things to say about a subject, but there are also seas of individuals who have nothing productive to add to the conversation, and yet still feel as though they should somehow be granted the same attention given to the adequate amateur or the “expert.” I’m not suggesting that “experts” are always correct, or even always good at what they do. They get things wrong all the time, as do “amateurs.” But they are right more often than the folks who write one line critiques on Amazon.com or incoherent blog posts about why *insert President here* is evil and should be impeached. Even positive critiques from these folks are meaningless in the long run.
So, I challenge this idea that providing a space for everyone to say whatever they want in public is inherently good. There are consequences: the quality of rhetoric drops drastically, false information is easy to spread, and so on. It’s great that we have more voices, because diversity is always a good thing, but a limitless diversity is problematic. The Internet, for all its wonders, has no way to deal with this. It is powerless to what is eating it alive from the inside. I don’t think it will ever gain the power to do something about the problems it has created either. I think we’re stuck with them, for good and for bad.