Geert Lovink on Tue, 2 Feb 2010 15:25:44 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Blues in the American salon: "Digital Nation": What has the Internet done to us?

(Hi, where does this collective tiredness come from? Can someone  
explain this? Is it the winter? Depressed politics? Cold turkey post- 
Xmas feelings? Agreed, the weather is bad. Obama sucks. And the iPad  
is yet another disappointment. The 'I told you so attitude' doesn't  
bring much, I guess. Is it the great influence of Jaron Lanier on the  
American psyche? You tell me. Ciao, Geert)

"Digital Nation": What has the Internet done to us?

We're Googling ourselves stupid. Even tech guru Douglas Rushkoff has  
regrets. PBS investigates our Information Age

By Heather Havrilesky

After 15 years of bloviating, looks like we've finally entered the
information age. Back in 1996, when I worked at in the
offices of HotWired, the online offshoot of Wired magazine, our
brightly hued warehouse was abuzz with overcaffeinated worker bees
high on the limitless possibilities of the Internets. Every 20-
something in San Francisco went from being unemployed (post-recession)
to dreaming big. Why, we could write stuff about Burning Man and rock
climbing, and people would pay us for it! We could learn HTML or
(gasp) become middle managers!

The "big idea" guys, high on more than the Internets, called big
meetings so they could rhapsodize on creating virtual communities
and breaking down traditional Western phallocentric patriarchies and
enabling subcultures to reach out and robustly interface with like-
minded hives.

My bosses at, meanwhile, accurately predicted that the Web
would soon become something between a gigantic mall catering to the
lowest common denominator and an infinite tabloid echo chamber. Their
mantra: Sell out early and often. Why? Because those of us musing
about murderous robot showdowns (or scratching out angry cartoons
under a pseudonym, for that matter) would all go back to grabbing
ankle for The Man sooner than we thought.

What they didn't know, and never could've predicted, was that the Web
would also transform itself into an enormous, never-ending high school
reunion (See also: hell).

Revolutionary in a coal mine

Even though I've opted out of the big-idea, Future-of-the-Web
bloviating business over the years (mostly because it's more my style
to wallow in obscurity, wearing outdated shoes), I think it's finally
safe to proclaim, together, that the information age has officially
arrived. After all, my 13-year-old stepson texts more often than he
speaks, my 3-year-old daughter wants her own bright pink iPad so
she can see what Cinderella is doing right now, I waste most of my
day reading Tweets from a Laura Ingalls Wilder impersonator and a
recent dinner guest spent half the night answering lingering trivial
conversational unknowns by looking them up on his iPhone.

Let's see, so the digital revolution led us all to this: a gigantic,
commercial, high school reunion/mall filthy with insipid tabloid
trivia, populated by perpetually distracted, texting, tweeting demi-
humans. Yes, the information age truly is every bit as glorious and
special as everyone predicted it would be!

Apparently our futuristic "Blade Runner"-esque digital dystopia is
so bewildering that even Internet "big idea" man Douglas Rushkoff
is currently reconsidering his unconditional love for new media in
Frontline's "Digital Nation" (premieres 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2,
on PBS, check local listings), an in-depth investigation into the
possibilities and side effects of our digital immersion.

"I want the luxury of being able to push the pause button, you know,"
Rushkoff, one of the producers of this 90-minute report, muses to the
other producer, Rachel Dretzin, as the cameras roll. Rushkoff says
he wants to "really ask whether we're tinkering with some part of
ourselves that's a little bit deeper than we might realize at first.
You know, how are we changing what it means to be a human being by
using all this stuff?"

Keep in mind, this is a guy who, despite his Dilbert-meets-Derrida
perspective, spent the better half of the '90s gushing about the power
and the glory of the Internets in intelligently written books and
on crappy "all about the Internets" shows like "The Site" (Christ,
remember that one?). If Rushkoff is rethinking his ardor for the
digital realm, you know we're in trouble.

Even if you're too distracted by your iPhone to care whether continual
distractions will take a toll on our souls, "Digital Nation" should
beat a little sense into you. You know the routine: A kid says
proudly, "I never read books. I'll be honest. I can't remember the
last time I read a book"; an English professor tells the camera,
solemnly, "I can't assign a novel that's more than 200 pages"; we
learn of a Kaiser Family Foundation study indicating that 8- to 18-
year-old kids spend 53 hours a week using media.

And don't believe the hype about a whole new generation of effective
multitaskers, either. "Most multitaskers think that they're brilliant
at multitasking," says Stanford professor Clifford Nass. But "it
turns out that multitaskers are terrible at nearly every aspect of
multitasking." (In an article on the Stanford News Web site, his
colleague Eyal Ophir comments, "We kept looking for what they're
better at, and we didn't find it.")

Even Sherry Turkle, director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and
Self, confesses that a plugged-in state doesn't necessarily make her
life more satisfying or more productive. "I've been busy all day,
and I haven't thought about anything hard," Turkle says. "I mean,
the point of it is to be our most creative selves, not to distract
ourselves to death."

"I've always prided myself on offering soothing answers to people's
anxieties about this stuff," Rushkoff continues later. "I felt like
I was in on a secret, that these old fuddy-duddies were panicking
unnecessarily, underestimating our kids' ability to adapt to the new
reality unfolding before us."

But Rushkoff's mind has changed, and now he feels like a fuddy-duddy
himself. But, as he accurately points out, stepping away from it
all isn't always possible. "Combating distraction, it's not as easy
as just turning off your e-mail program. You turn off your e-mail
program, it's not your e-mail program that complains, it's your
friends, it's your boss, it's your bills. You know, 'Where's that
report?' 'Why haven't you answered your e-mail?' 'Are you mad at me?'
You can't do this in isolation. If you're going to deal with the
problem of distraction it's something that we're all going to have to
deal with together."

But how, Doug? How? Instead of suggesting some answers, we're off to
South Korea to watch teenagers in a dark underground PC Bangs (gaming
centers) playing video games for hours on end, then we're off to an
Army Experience Center, an eerie new style of recruitment center that
lures young men with violent video games and then discusses enlisting
with the ones who are legally eligible. Next, we watch a guy in front
of a computer screen operating an unmanned drone, then view footage of
similar drones dropping bombs on targets a world away.

And just when you're pretty sure that technological advances are
transforming our globe into a seething cauldron of violence, hatred
and pointless musings about Snooki from "Jersey Shore," here's a
lighter segment on "Second Life" to distract us back into a state
of complacency. Apparently IBM uses "Second Life" to hold virtual
meetings between people who live thousands of miles from each other.
Each person at the meeting is embodied by a different avatar, and the
participants end up feeling like they've met in person, even though
they're actually in upstate New York, Vermont and San Paolo, Brazil.
(Note to boss: Can we hold our Salon meetings this way, and can my
avatar be an enormous roach that occasionally hits other people over
the head with a crowbar?)

"It may be decades until we know what living in a state of constant
distraction will do to us," offers Rushkoff, although right now I'm
a little more concerned about what the people getting bombed to
smithereens by those drones are going to do to us, once they have the

But don't worry, everyone! "For all of the moments of isolation
the digital may promote, there's also a chance for engagement,"
Rushkoff says. "So I guess that means you can still count me among
the faithful!" With that chirpy conclusion, Rushkoff shuts off his
computer and heads outside to his garden. Suddenly I can't help
picturing Louis Rossetto and the big idea guys (plus that guy who sold
"" for a few million dollars) all padding out to their lush
backyard gardens, paid for by those years as Web visionaries, and I
think: I should've sold out earlier, and more often.

Not that I had anything to sell in the first place. But who's going to
help the rest of us turn this stuff off? Doug? Before you leave, um,
where's the exit to the mall? How do we filter out the tabloids and
the instant messages from long-lost high school acquaintances? Doug?
Dooouuuug! Come back here! Help us!

C amera disappears into screaming mouth, "Invasion of the Body        
Snatchers"-style. Fade to black.                                      

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