February 14, 2011

Are you a Never-Better, Better-Never, or an Ever-Waser? Adam Gopnik on the Internet


Is the Internet half empty or half full?

Reviewing a slate of new what-should-we-think-about-the-Internet books in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik humorously divides the experts into three camps:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Gopnik has some fine cautionary words for each camp. He sees the Never-Betters blithe belief in technology as a bit myopic:

Never-Betterism has its excitements, but the history it uses seems to have been taken from the back of a cereal box. The idea, for instance, that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth. If the printing press did propel the Reformation, one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther’s newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what followed the Reformation wasn’t the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge. What followed the Reformation was, actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means—i.e., printed books—to spread ideas about what jerks the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare.

Gopnik has sympathy for the Better-Nevers, but finally finds their nostalgia as problematic as the Never-Betters’ optimism:

The books by the Better-Nevers are more moving than those by the Never-Betters for the same reason that Thomas Gray was at his best in that graveyard: loss is always the great poetic subject….But if reading a lot of novels gave you exceptional empathy university English departments should be filled with the most compassionate and generous-minded of souls, and, so far, they are not.

Finally, Gopnik seems to come down on the site of the Ever-Wasers:

There is, for instance, a simple, spooky sense in which the Internet is just a loud and unlimited library in which we now live—as if one went to sleep every night in the college stacks, surrounded by pamphlets and polemics and possibilities. There is the sociology section, the science section, old sheet music and menus, and you can go to the periodicals room anytime and read old issues of the New Statesman. (And you can whisper loudly to a friend in the next carrel to get the hockey scores.) To see that that is so is at least to drain some of the melodrama from the subject. It is odd and new to be living in the library; but there isn’t anything odd and new about the library.

There is, of course, a lot more subtlety and complexity to Gopniks argument and you should read the article in its entirety here. However if you were forced to answer, using whatever subjective personal criteria you desire, how would you respond to the following question: Has the internet improved, diminished, or not dramatically affected your quality of life and/or the quality of the culture as a whole? (And, if you insist on subtlety and complexity, please discuss in the comments.)

The Internet? A good thing, bad thing, or just another thing.
The Internet has had a dramatic positive effect on life/culture as a whole.
The Internet has had a dramatic negative effect on life/culture as a whole.
The Internet hasn’t dramatically changed the fundamental quality of life/culture.