We are, ostensibly, in the age of the internet. So what does this mean for us, as individuals and as a society?
This is a question that has been oft debated, and the rise of the internet has often been discussed in conjunction with decentralization, the empowerment of minorities, the widening of culture and other such issues. In this post however I will focus on two main issues: that of the commons, and of information retention.
The internet revolutionised society in regards to access to information. It should be noted that it is not alone in this (iPads, modern mobile phones with video and photo sharing abilities, and other such technologies) but it was the first major actor to do so. Without entering into too much detail on this, it did result in the creation of transnational micropublics and global subcultures, the sharing of technologies, methodologies and techniques across the world, and created creative and collaborative international virtual communities.
We can recognise, of course, that there is a lot of data out there. And this is where I’d like to explore some issues of contention:
– Is there too much data? Can we process it all, and is the sheer value of it overwhelming to us?
– Should the data be made accessible to all, free of charge and open to creative endeavours?
There are some wonderful arguments for both sides, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. There are many theorists and commentators, including Howard Rheingold, who believe that there is such an utter abundance of information that much of it loses its value; some, such as David Rock, posit that it is actually harmful and reduces our quality of life and happiness. The Commons Movement, on the other hand, encourages an open sharing of information so that we can access even more – not simply based on a greater multiplicity but rather on a universally open platform that enables a better end product due to wider collaboration.
My view – and I completely accept that I am a relativist and completely biased by my own experiences – is that the internet is inherently socially empowering. The key point which I think many of these theorists don’t focus on enough is that our world today is vastly different to what it was in the past and this isn’t just because of the internet, but because our population growth has increased exponentially, as have our physical practices which, largely due to technological innovation, have meant that we now produce and consume millions of different products in different ways.
We live in an increasingly multivariate world. The internet would not contain so much information if it was based on an 18th century society. This is not to say that life was simpler in the 18th century because, as The Aporetic pointed out, life was rather complicated even in the past and in fact we now have technology to make many of those practices easier for us. Rather there is so much more variation in present life and precisely because technology makes so many things easier for us, we can explore more avenues but only need to do so on a shallow level. I suppose in a way this means that instead of focusing on one thing, we multitask and divide our attention between many things – in economic terms, instead of specializing we diversify.
Yet this is a choice we make. Those who wish to be cosmopolitan sophisticates expand their minds by reading widely and exploring their surroundings and involving themselves in a variety of practices and experiences. Others choose to live more traditional lifestyles and will limit themselves to a few rituals. For example
– A chemical analyst who works in a lab, communicates with her friends mainly over the telephone and through pre-arranged online calls, whose hobbies include cooking and eating out and who uses the internet only briefly to look up recipes
– An arts student who enjoys exploring the city and trawls the internet to find secret hideouts and unusual experiences, who uses Facebook to keep in contact with her extensive network of friends and associates – who she uses to gain access to aforementioned secret hideouts and unusual experiences – and who variously decides on new hobbies such as sewing and firetwirling which again are informed through a combination of the internet, local library books and the knowledge of those within her network
What I am attempting to illustrate here is that this condition of ‘too much information’ is related to lifestyle choices and is not simply symptomatic of present society due to the presence of the internet.
For this reason too I am strongly in favour of the idea of ‘commons’. I already addressed the idea of giving away works for free in a previous blogpost, but apart from the business viability of it I think it represents a world of possibilities for the improvement of society. Certainly in some cases, such as with Wikipedia we’ve seen that Commons can result in the creation of amazing compositories of shared knowledge. Open software is often so much more aligned to users’ needs as they can participate in its creation. Perhaps the most contentious issue relates to file sharing and particularly in regards to music.
Yet here again I think it has the potential to revolutionise society – record companies only make profits on around 1 in 10 of every label they put out, and given how much effort and input is required, the very idea of record companies is largely inefficient. In comparison, when music is shared, free online, it reaches a wider audience and instead of wasting money on cds (environmentally damaging) or on paid downloads (in which much of the money goes to the intermediaries), listeners choose instead to see the artist performing live – which sees most of the proceeds returned to the artists instead of their label, and gives them more creative license and less restraints.
The idea of commons does far exceed this of course, stretching from the physical to the virtual, the tangible to intangible, and across many other categorisations. It involves debates about medicine, farming techniques, art and many other fields. Yet even though I cannot address all of these here I must again reiterate my firm and strongly held belief that commons can only have a positive effect on society; in many ways they are rather socialist, and they represent a chance for equality and empowerment amongst all the citizens of the world. That is certainly worth fighting for.