The thing is, Internet books are inevitably either cheerleadery or chidey, and Shirky [who writes about open-source Web publishing in this issue –Ed.] is a cheerleader. He makes a good case, too, for the rightness of celebrating the ways that blog, wiki, and social-networking technologies have enriched our lives, though he acknowledges that we’re losing freedoms as quickly as we’re gaining them. “It’s not a revolution if nobody loses,” he says, and he goes on to describe three kinds of losers: the workers whose industries are undermined by the free dissemination of information they used to control; the journalists who, like those 15th-century scribes, have lost their professional identity and prestige; and the people who come to harm when “bad groups”–his deftly apolitical and therefore inoffensive example is pro-anorexia support groups–are able to assemble and distribute information more easily. In general, however, you get the sense that he doesn’t mind sacrificing these losers on the altar of change.
But there is another, larger kind of loss happening, and in order to understand it, we might turn to the tech-trend literature of an earlier era.
In Berlin in the mid-1930s, the German-Jewish Marxist literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (who killed himself in 1940, lest the Nazis have that pleasure) wrote a sprawling yet intensely epigrammatic essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” which is assigned in order to confuse nearly every college student who takes a comp-lit class in America today. Freshly translated (it used to be called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which, although more lumberingly Teutonic, has the virtue of evoking an image of robot sex) and newly packaged with an assortment of his other “writings on media” in a hipster-friendly paperback, Benjamin’s best-known work is … well, as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. Man, is it ever complicated. The essay begins by describing the ways film and photography have changed human perception. Benjamin argues that because such exact simulacra of reality can be mass-distributed and mass-consumed, we have a new, more distant relationship to authentic reality–and he concludes that these changes in perception clear a path for fascism.
Not exactly cheerleadery, then. And while it’s easy to be distracted by Benjamin’s dusty examples–Chaplin’s films and Picasso’s paintings–and therefore lulled into thinking he’s describing a different world from Shirky’s … well, don’t be. Substitute blogs and social-networking platforms and Twitter and YouTube and Wikipedia for film and photography, and the nearly century-old essay becomes a relevant, piercing alarm.
In celebrating the tools we’re all thoughtlessly adopting, Shirky ably demonstrates how useful they are in allowing us to share our common interests and keep track of each other’s whereabouts. Thousands of Xena: Warrior Princess fans, previously unknown to each other, are uniting at Internet-organized meetups. Text-message blogging platform Twitter, normally just a way of bragging about the party you’re currently attending in real time, can become a tool of dissent if you happen to become a political prisoner (and somehow manage to hang onto your phone, as an activist blogger recently did in Cairo). Shirky even believes that technology is creating and enabling “love”; when he talks about the hundreds of thousands of people who are collaboratively building Wikipedia, he says they “love one another in its context.” He fails to mention–or maybe he fails to notice–that the “love” and “freedom” he describes don’t mean quite what they did back when our meat acquaintances outnumbered our Facebook “friends.”