I recently finished two works about the “free culture” movement, each of which are polar opposites – and in a way that is unsettling. The most recent is Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: a Writer’s Manifesto. I have long found it ironic that critics of “Web 2.0” – to use a problematic term for this larger new media phenomenon – end up adopting the evils they attribute to their subjects: visceral, from the hip, slapdash. Lawrence Lessig excoriates Helprin in a review so I need not waste any words here; even so, I continue to be surprised at what passes for informed criticism. On the other hand, David Bollier’s Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own is an excellent history of the Creative Commons and Free Culture movement.
However, am I only praising those works that are congruent with my sympathies? While Bollier is not presenting criticism (pro or con), it is a favorable portrayal. But I don’t think I’m being unfair. I consider myself allergic to unalloyed “Net boosterism” and the “Boing Boing” crowd. In my work on Wikipedia, I admit that I am fond of it but I try to take a “Neutral Point of View” as a scholar and an intellectual hobby. By this I mean that beyond academic concerns, I personally enjoy learning about different perspectives and trying to understand how people come to differing opinions. (So I’m identifying as a “skeptic” more so than an academic.) In fact, I was delighted to read Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Is Stupefied as Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future: or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30. While it sounds like another rant, it is a well-founded critique of how digital media is damaging literacy and civic preparedness in youth. He argues that while screen-based technology might further spatial cognitive skills, knowledge is being replaced with a narcissistic preoccupation with social peers and popular culture. And he actually makes logical arguments based on citations to research. One doesn’t have to agree with his argument, but it deserves one’s full consideration.
This is why I was disappointed a few semesters ago when I recommended Bauerlein to an otherwise excellent student who was a Net enthusiast. She treated Bauerlein as if he were a Keen or Helprin, cursorily brushing him off as someone who didn’t “get it.” This was counter to the spirit I was trying to inculcate in that class and began my musing on whether we have a genuinely informed and vital discourse.
Kat on 2009-06-24
I haven’t read the Bauerlein yet – the title made it seem like another quickly-penned, poorly-reasoned rant like Keen’s so I wasn’t rushing to pick it up.
But otherwise I agree with this post entirely – and I don’t think uncritical boosterism of Wikipedia/Web 2.0 projects is even good for it or its supporters.
Joseph Reagle on 2009-06-25
Thanks for the comment Kat. I think Bauerlein is one of the best critical takes I’ve read, but perhaps we will see more beyond the pap being turned out presently.