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"It’s Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses"

A new age of “technological reproducibility” is here. Ugh.
August 19, 2008

Early in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Clay Shirky–an Internet scholar at New York University who also profita­bly shares his expertise with organizations like Nokia, Procter and Gamble, and News Corp.–reminds his readers that our moment of rapid, technology-abetted social change is not without historical precedent. The ­century-­long “chaotic period” that followed the invention of movable type was even more confusing, he says. At one point, things got so weird that an abbot published a defense of the scribal tradition then being eclipsed by the printing press and, because he wanted it disseminated cheaply and efficiently, had it printed rather than having it copied by the scribes whose livelihoods he was defending.

Media Martyr: Walter Benajmin believed that modern media permitted a revolution in perception that made us prey to dictators and false gods. He might have been talking about Facebook.

What would the poor abbot say if he knew that much of what the good old printing press seems to be spitting out these days is books about the technology that ended books’ 400-year winning streak? Sure, the Internet has been inspiring dead-tree guides to optimizing its power while minimizing its dangers for almost as long as it has existed, but right now this section of the nonfiction shelf is glutted. From last year’s Send, which promised to guide n00bs (newbies, for you n00bs) through the niceties of e-mail correspondence, to Jonathan Zittrain’s warning about the dangers of “tethered appliances” like iPhones, to Lee Siegel’s wounded polemic against the culture of online meanness he calls “blogofascism,” to linguist Naomi S. Baron’s warnings about the way IM totes compromises expression and comprehension IRL, to Daniel Solove’s musings about the YouTube-diminished “future of reputation,” publishers are banking on the notion that whenever we’re not busy twittering our lives away, we’d like to be reading a pop-scholarly analysis of why we’re doing so and how we could be doing it better. Who do they think is buying these books, anyway?

Actually, come to think of it, I’m buying them–all of them. I’m doing it for odd reasons, though, and I’m looking in them for something that I never quite find. Like an expatriate who reads every new novel that’s set in her homeland, I read books about the Internet to remember the time I spent working and living there, to contrast my memories with the authors’ impressions and see how well they hold up. In Shirky’s descriptions of the way new Web-based social tools are restructuring businesses, communities, and relationships, I recognize familiar scenery. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s lived there too. You get the sense, though, that he’s somehow managed to avoid walking down any dark alleys, or staring too long at any piles of fetid garbage.

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.

"Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations"
By Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2008, $25.95

"The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media"
By Walter Benjamin
Harvard University Press, 2008, $18.95

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.”

Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between “follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon” and experiencing that same mountain range at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing (“Gosh, this mountain is beautiful! Just like a postcard!”), social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship. By ignoring that difference, as Shirky mostly does, we keep moving heedlessly toward a future where the basic human social activities that these new technologies are modeled on–talking, being introduced to new people by friends–are threatened.

These concerns probably aren’t foremost in the minds of Shirky’s readers, who are probably just trying to figure out how to wield more influence in the new world he describes. But it’s worth thinking about the kind of book that Shirky, a lucid enough thinker and writer, would compose if he were more concerned with the uses of online “love” and “freedom.”

And if we’re concerned about that, what can we do? What would Benjamin do, besides worry about what’s lost every time a Tumblr post is reblogged?

Here’s something to try as (trust me!) a pointless experiment: cease to log in to your instant messenger for a week. You’ll find out quickly that for some of the “buddies” on your buddy list, you immediately cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist. Or go one step further: delete your profile from Facebook and stop blogging. Stop reading blogs. Stop attending social events you find out about online. See how your world shrinks, and if you’re brave, see if you can stick with your foray into social-media abstention until you start to see your world opening back up again–maybe in different ways.

Temporarily pretending that the world hasn’t changed may be instructive, but it is neither Shirkian nor Benjaminian. As Walter Benjamin probably wouldn’t put it, there’s no point in clinging to what used to seem to be real. But I’m still waiting for the author who, without being like the guy who defended scribes in print, finds a way to say that we shouldn’t let this stuff run amok just because it can and it wants to. Because it does want to.

Emily Gould was an editor at from September 2006 to November 2007. In May, she wrote a cover story, “Exposed,” for the New York Times Magazine about her time blogging for Gawker. Free Press will publish her first book–of autobiographical stories–in 2010.

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