The Internet Revolution has Little to do with Technology

A minor epiphany this weekend, courtesy of my friend Peter Rukavina and a post on his weblog about cowboys. Peter writes:

It’s how the web changes how we think about the world that interests me.

I think that some of the ways the Internet is organized (decentralized, ubiquitous, anarchic, open source) and some of the the ways weblogs are constructed (interconnected, distributed, personal, opinionated) have inspired me (and others, including Rob, I think) to realize that we can do other things ” things that perhaps we’ve always done in a top-down, centralized, expensive, carefully controlled, closed source way ” differently.

For example, the Zap Your PRAM conference. This conference had no outside funding, no advertising, required no meetings to organize. And yet we had people from three countries gather in one place, almost spontaneously, for an interesting weekend of discussion.

Exactly! I wonder where I would be had I not found the world of technology and the web. Part of me pictures a utopia where I read more and spend all of my time with family and friends. The reality would probably involve watching a lot more television.

I’m not suggesting that the web saved me from a life of mediocrity. However, when you look at some of the fundamental ideas behind the web, a system where the power lies at the ends and there is no real centralization, it is easy to see how this could affect your general mindset.

Imagine a child who grows up in an environment where television is the primary medium. They are unlikely to ever be involved in the production of any television, or even to have a venue to provide input into what is broadcast beyond their commercial buying habits. Those involved with the production of television are distant and inaccessible celebrities.

Contrast this with a child who grows up where the web is the primary medium. They have a weblog, they read the weblogs, emails, and instant messages as much as any commercial media. They have access to the producers of much of the media they consume. In many cases the word consume is inadequate to describe the activity and participate may be a better term.

The ideology behind the world in which you develop must have a strong influence over how you see the world. The ideas behind the web have had a strong influence over my world. It’s not just about hardware and software. It’s about ideas.


11 thoughts on “The Internet Revolution has Little to do with Technology

  1. Just on the point of the pre-web child, the older cousins of today’s nerds participated in cable tv shows, school radio club and were the a/v geeks and the techs for plays. They produced plenty, frigged with photocopies to make ‘zines, fliers, posters and never missed the future they did not know yet. It just was not digital. There is little difference between the putting on of that conference and the putting on of the play, taking over the yearbook or being in the band that played all the dances – it is just a collective project. While the limited community in the analogue world past was defined geographically and perhaps, with ‘zines, postally, the cacaphony of the web makes at best for small groups with less interaction between those people, though perhaps more ideas shared in the medium of text like this post. The internet also inherently provides an illusion of achievement which is difficult to shake. When we write these textual expressions of ideas, they tend not to build upon each other, they only get as far as their first statements. I have never achieved in the digital world that level of and pleasure in hot house ideas and project work development that undergrad and high school discussions triggered.

  2. That’s a very McLuhanesque statement. He said it’s not about watching TV, it’s about watching people watching TV. We can’t understand the impact of a medium by looking at the content, we need to look at the effect of what’s there on those who view it (or interact with it, in the case of the net).

    It is a very interesting post. Thanks.

  3. Alan makes point. However ‘zines and A/V clubs never became the collosal instrument for change that the internet has become. Alan is correct about the “illusion of achievment” but do not underestimate what may be achieved. Interpersonal connections through blogs et cetera remain mostly one to many, and humans are fundamentally face to face creatures. But the ideas I pick up on the web have fueled many a heated late night diner conversation about wikis, or the end of heierarchy, or even socialism.
    Massive participation is the key, and every day the web invents for itself more ways for people to participate more easily.
    In the way of some interesting reading and a theoretical foundation this discussion check out the introduction to Andrew Feenburg’s Critical Theory of Technology.
    I love it because its so dated (’91 – pre-internet) but it still proves very relavent. I think you will find significant parallels between his Critical Theory and the dogma of the open source movement.

  4. I think you make very correct observations, Jason, about the success of the scale of the internet but I still wonder about (and this is an aspect of what I would call the illusion) the proposition about its massiveness as it relates participation. I do not think I can receive through the internet massively though I participate as a small part of hugeness of the flow into it. It is a broad and raging river and I have a bucket on a rope called Google. My dealings with it have a large measure of chance associated with it. I find I live in a part of it which is familiar but I sometimes worry is not the most relevant to me yet can never know due to the scale and uncertainly that is still part of the unmapped only searchable internet. As perhaps a pre-internet nerd I don’t think I had that concern. My imaginations were met by the pace of the resources available to me.

  5. Yes, Steven, I also believe that software and hardwares are more like much longer hands and much wider eyes making us reach places never touched before than everything else. Very McLuhan indeed, Noah, well put. In fact, McLuhan insights are more useful and revealing now than ever. Through his eyes (and his truth) we can see much better what we are appreciating, what are we in need of, what are we going with all our tech arms, legs, eyes, ears and brains. Can’t think of a better understanding of this world of ours – Internet, tech, media – without thinking btw of McLuhan. (maybe his philosophy is really back in business and that’s why we are going to have the

  6. Good stuff, and good stuff in the comments, too. Just one quick thought to add. Technology is a very important factor in the “Internet Revolution”. Most of what is being alternately praised and criticized here is not merely encouraged by technology, it is only possible with technology. Costs of time or money are prohibitive without it.

    I think the point is that technology is not the point of technology. The benefits, the value to the users/consumers/participants is. Simply because many pieces of the infrastructure are interchangeable, or because they are not the primary value, does not mean their role is small. You’ve astutely observed an error, but corrected an exaggeration with an exaggeration. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    …but they do make for interesting discussion.

  7. Interesting thoughts, but what about the whole commercial end of the internet revolution? Do you think there have been several revolutions within the larger internet revolution?

    At first it seems it was merely an academic pursuit, then exploded into a commercial pursuit with online shopping, etc, and now it seems to that it’s become a pop-culture revolution with the iPod being as much a status symbol as an mp3 player and the rise of weblogs.

    I dunno, it would seem that the ideas being conveyed by many weblogs these days are just parroted versions of the pop-culture that is dispensed via the TV. I guess my point is that even if this child is growing up as a “participant”… are the ideas he is exposed to going to be any different than those that would absorb by the ossmosis in front television?

  8. I have to disagree with Ryan Powers. Even today, TV gives us a very limited range of programming. In the UK we have five basic terrestrial channels and particularly in recent years the content is becoming overwhelmingly Reality TV, home improvement shows and the reality home improvement shows.

    Growing up in Northern Ireland was a very limiting experience, and you can imagine how people can accept the ‘Troubles’ as having always been present. I think the Internet is an essential way of connecting to other viewpoints and cultures.

    Blogging is something which has just begun to appeal to me, but this is a wonderful, decentralised medium for counter-culture. We’re told so much by our governments and media, and controlled in so many ways by advertisers, it’s important that the intelligent, creative people who can see beyond propaganda are allowed to find a voice.

  9. I aggree with leveeBreaks. If you sift through the internet for long enough, you can find topics on subjects and discuss them with intelligent, creative people.
    I actually prefer discussing through blogs over face to face debates because it becomes much less personal, and I for one have a much easier time getting points accross through turn-based writing than in heated debates where many things are said on impulse. I also find that people have an easier time admitting that they are wrong, or accepting your viewpoint when it is on message boards as opposed to in a face to face debate. I much rather the dynamics of internet conversations. Of course, a good ol head to head debate is fun to have once in a while, but I just dont find that they yield the same results as their “blogged” counterparts.
    So in that sense, I find that the internet is much better at providing a place to voice your opinion than with people in your surroundings. The thing about the internet is that you can decide where and where not to “voice” your opinion, depending on the intelligence and credibility of the people already participating on that board.

  10. Also, a major thing i like about the internet is that you are judged based on the quality of your ideas, not by your age. For example, I have a hard time finding people to have discussions with because adults usually act like they know more than you about whatever you’re talking about when you’re a kid, even if they don’t. So discussing things with adults is just plain unappealing. My friends are a good source of comments and feedback, but for some reason the ones that do have something to say are always hard-set in their ways or opinions, so it’s next to impossible to get a real debate going on. I guess this just all goes to say that I much rather internet-based debates over personal debates.

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