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Explaining the Net’s dominance

This article appears in the issue February 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 2]


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Is the Net really different from what came before? I’m going to say yes. The question is why.

Different in what way? Just about everything on the Net is an example of how different life has become. Even old-fashioned e-mail has changed our daily schedule (first thing in the morning, you go through your inbox, and then repeatedly throughout the day), changed the tone of interoffice communication (memos were so much more formal), changed what we use meetings for (much of the status reporting moved into e-mail), and changed our ability to recall what had been said (search your inbox to find out what those lying swine promised you six years ago). Look around at all that we do with the Net, and it’s hard to find an area that has not been radically and unexpectedly changed from how we lived 15 years ago. For example, remember when to navigate to a new place we had to have someone sitting next to us holding a map? Remember what it was like to fold maps?

So, if it is the case that the Net changes everything it touches—and we can even allow ourselves a few exceptions if you insist—the question is why.

The answer you give will say a lot about the basic way you see the world. For example, you might explain it by looking at the economic changes the Net has brought about. Or you might take a psychological view, seeing our involvement with the Internet as therapeutic or symptomatic. Or you might take it as a development in the history of thought.

The truth is likely to be in the sum of explanatory approaches, because we are twisty little creatures. I personally tend to look at this from the point of view of the Internet as a new communications medium, but I think there’s another reason underneath that one.

From the point of view of the Internet as a medium, many of the changes have occurred because in moving from atoms to bits, many of the old restrictions of the media have fallen away. So, the need for newspapers to act as filters for entire cities dissolves when connected networks can gather, distribute and curate news for themselves. Unsurprisingly, loosely connected webs of untrained folks are not all that good at doing any of those jobs (except perhaps distributing the news), and I hope that we end up with a useful hybrid of the old and the new. But, it was the removing of the innate restrictions imposed by atoms that caused this change, for better and for worse.

Of course, merely lowering the barriers to creation, distribution, and curation is not enough to explain all that has occurred within any one field, such as the newspaper industry. One would also have to talk about the change in the economics of newspapers. And about the sociology of newspapers, and the role newspapers have played in our culture. And about the history of journalism. As with explanations of any major event—a war, an economic boom or bust, the enfranchisement of a new class of people—there is no single explanation, but only, well, a web of explanations from multiple, linked dimensions.

I tend toward media-centric explanations perhaps because I think of humans as social beings, and of sociality as a matter of shared frameworks of thought: We are social because we share a world that we think about in roughly the same sorts of ways. Others see sociality as a matter of economic exchange, or as the play of psychological needs and demands, or as a struggle for dominance. I’m not defending my own view or suggesting it’s more fundamental than others. In fact, it’s undoubtedly bound up with my own needy, demanding psychology, and determined by the material economic system in which I was raised, etc., etc.

My own way of answering the question of why the Net came to cultural dominance (in the West, anyway) so quickly leaves out an important part of the answer, however. So, sure, the change in media accounts for a lot. But, we also have to ask why our most solid institutions crumbled so quickly. We thought newspapers, libraries, schools, political systems and economic systems were rocks, but one whiff of the Internet and they trembled and some fell. Why?

My answer to this is also bound up with my unreasoned, core belief about the nature of human sociality: Our institutions crumbled because we knew they were poor expressions of our more deeply held truths about who we are as human beings. To continue using newspapers as an example: We always knew that while newspaper editors are skilled and trustworthy at their jobs, the notion that there is a set of daily stories that constitute the news, and that those stories happen to be what fits in a newspaper, was problematic. We all knew there was something suspect about the idea embodied in paper-based newspapers that we should all be interested in the same small set of stories, and should weigh their importance equally. We had to believe that because that’s all our medium would allow: We all got the same front page. As soon as we had a new medium that permitted abundance, and that permitted new ways for us to discover what counts as news, the false premises of the old medium were exposed. It turns out that we had taken its weaknesses as its strengths.

I believe the same sort of story holds for many of the institutions that the Net shattered simply by coughing a couple of times. We fled from the old institutions because the Net let our core understanding of ourselves ring truer. That truer self is not always pretty, admirable or socially sustainable. But, it is more ours.


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