Tuesday, May 02, 2006


The Internet and its discontents

News flash: the Internet is no longer sexy. Or maybe after four days of hot and cold running literature, a certain exhaustion was setting in. Whatever the cause, the Friday afternoon panel at the CUNY Graduate Center--"Just the Facts: Truth & the Internet"--drew a pretty sparse audience, despite an attractively variegated roster. What's more, much of the crowd was sulking in the back rows of the large auditorium, avoiding eye contact. That didn't discourage Jacob Weisberg, who's been laboring in the Internet vineyard for the last decade at Slate. Nattily attired, and with enough enthusiasm to make up for the deficit elsewhere on the panel, he began by asking each participant: "How has the Internet changed what you do?"

George Saunders began: "It's had a profound effect. Now I spend seven hours a day self-Googling." (Rim shot!) On a more serious note, he mentioned some left-leaning pieces he had written for Slate, and the instant responses these had provoked. He also suggested that the Internet had transformed the (imaginary) relationship between writers and their readers. "To the extent that you project your audience as a fiction writer, the Internet really has complicated that projection."

The next panelist, Syrian blogger and policy wonk Ammar Abduhlhamid, was considerably less grudging in his response. "The Internet has freed me," he stated. Yet he too had some doubts about his blog, which not only put an end to his existence as a bohemian man of letters but eventually became a thorn in the side of the Syrian government. "It dragged me away from a literary life. In that sense, the Internet freed me--but sometimes I curse it." This reservation seemed only partly due to his encounters with the state security services. In fact Abduhlhamid sounded fairly jolly about his multiple detentions. "One day the interrogator told me, 'You believe in this American democracy with its fucking and Guatemala.' I said, 'You mean Guantanamo, don’t you?' That was the day my blog got the most hits!"

Even Weisberg seemed a little puzzled by this Captain Blood-style insouciance. Hadn't the blogger been, well, scared? At this point Abduhlhamid noted that his mother was a famous Syrian movie star--always helpful in the local Lubyanka--and passed the baton to Susan Tifft, a professor of journalism and co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. For her students, she suggested, the Web was introducing some elementary confusion. "My students keep asking: who is a journalist? Is it okay to use Wikipedia when you write a paper?" Certainly, she conceded, the Internet was making the very definition of journalism much more fluid.

Asne Seierstad, the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and 101 Days: A Baghdad Journal, essentially took a pass on the question. In Afghanistan, the setting of her first book, 80% of the population is still illiterate: why fuss around with the Internet, she argued, when hardly anybody can read? Not much of an answer, I'm afraid. But Seierstad, a strong contender for Most Attractive PEN Panelist of 2006, obviously has some deeper discomfort with the information superhighway: "You can get plenty of information, but not so much knowledge."

Rebounding from this bad attitude, Carol Darr, who directs the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, put in a plug for the Web as a formidable democratizing tool. Prior to the 2004 election, she asserted, the activist base for both parties was small: "You probably had 150,000 people in the entire country giving money and getting involved. Last time around, there were 7 to 10 million people"--and most of the credit for this spike goes to Internet campaigning.

At Weisberg's urging, the conversation returned to more bookish terrain, as he discussed the serial novel that Walter Kirn is currently writing for (speak of the devil) Slate. Were we witnessing the birth of a new literary form, written on the fly and published in a friction-free format that would have made Dickens's head spin? This got a skeptical response. "We need to think slowly at times," Abduhlhamid said. Saunders couched his objections in more personal terms: "I really know the difference between Draft One and Draft Fifty... To me, the biggest danger of the Internet is that we’ll be seduced by our first-draft charm.”

Now the dog pile began. "Much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is simply the assertion of opinion," Tifft said. She added: "We need standards of verifiability." Abduhlhamid upped the ante, pointing out that that Internet "can empower a lot of morons," and that it's hardly a repository of truth. Yet Saunders wound up the discussion by pleading for the advantages of an open-access culture. "A workable definition of democracy is everybody talking at once," he told the crowd, and singled out a putative benefit of the Internet that nobody can really argue against: a slow but steady "attrition of stupidity." You could do much worse.

To say that there cometh bad along with the good, Re: The Internet, is the same as saying that about Cheetohs, sex, and Romanian dictators...let's not hedge our bets here. The Internet (the mutant offspring of the telegraph and the television) has changed life on this planet with a speed that can only by framed in its own terms, as much for those who aren't within one hundred miles of a terminal as for those who do their shopping, banking, mating, creating and venting on it. Anyone who hasn't noticed that everything these days happens about ten thousand times faster than it did in 1986 is probably a brained-numbed victim of surf-lag (the disjointed biorhythm one suffers after staying up all night, several nights in a row, at the screen). Like any tool of primal qualities (fire springs to mind), the Internet is a godsend in the hands of the noble and smart and positively Satanic in the service of spammers, Nazis, Belgian pornographers, and people who can't get their their-there, your-you're, polarities straight. Can't see Saunders' point about the 'attrition of stupidity,' though...that's a fairly ahistorical hope on his part. On the other hand, it's now possible, for the first time in history, for smart people of no prior acquaintance to connect and communicate on a daily basis-globally. Isn't that what we're doing here today at J.M.'s generous invitation? I say that's miraculous...and send my warmest regards to The Pentagon for inventing the damn thing.
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