I am not an internet sceptic. I am excited by the possibilities of the internet; I consume social media; I spend hours every day playing in the surf. I genuinely think we are in the midst of the greatest techno-social revolution since heavy industrialisation. But nor do I ride the waves of internet utopianism.
The latest effusion in internet utopianism is the idea of web 4.0, an amorphous and ethereal mess of ideas around cloud culture, artificial intelligence theory, and the politics of information distribution. I don’t think I understand it. I don’t think it understands itself.
Who Controls the Internet? is still a vital critique of the internet’s political dreamers, exposing the problems with the idea of net-borderlessness, pointing to how economic hegemonies and semiotic power-blocks can hold sway. But what I want to see now is a critique of the materiality of the internet, pointing to how it, like all advanced technologies, is threatened by extreme resource scarcity in this culture of waste.
The internet and its enthusiasts constantly aspire to escape their material trappings — the reality of wires, servers, resource extraction.
But the net can no more be freed from its material underpinnings than could Descartes successfully divorce mind from body.
Nevertheless, philosophers continue to pretend that reason is not embodied, and informational utopias always ignore resource scarcity.
Like any other technology, the possibilities of the internet are shaped by the social and economic conditions of its societies. This is not to say that the internet does not shape politics and economics – there is a cyclical relationship – but State and Capital have awesome power to control things. Technology is never neutral, but neither is it the most powerful agent in the game; the internet does have a certain potential to reshape our societies, but I feel that, at least at the moment, our societies have more potential to shape it.
Readers of the world unite! Seize the means of semiotic production!
If nothing else, we should be tremendously excited about the internet as a platform for performance. ARGonauts must break the barriers of advergames; new media theatre types must see more potential than Such Tweet Sorrow; ChatRoulette can be used for more than comedy. The internet is already a giant playground of freaks, geeks and automatons; let’s play some more interesting games now.
We should feel as though we are in the early days of a new artform. The internet is currently like Los Angeles in 1915; artists and vagrants are migrating there, fleeing punitive licensing and seeking the white heat of competitive creativity. We’re making nonsense that people in a hundred years (or fewer? Does art change at an exponential rate, alongside technology, or is it slowing down?) will only be interested in as historical research, but we’re just starting to produce lasting memories.
But this kind of thinking I find abhorrent. For those too tired or jaded to click on a link, that leads to a video about new ideas for e-readers, trying to find ways of using internet connectivity to enliven ebooks and foster social reading. But the result is to import the attention-deficit gimmickry that characterises the worst of the internet into the book form. I follow the work of the Institute for the Future of the Book quite closely, because I think we need to reimagine the book for this new platform (obv.), but this is a recipe for hyperactive disaster. I read books for a depth of concentrated experience, for an immersive and relaxing linguistic experience, not to gather statistics, or send short messages to friends, or to skittishly skip around sources, or any of the other things internet reading allows. There should be no doubt now that internet reading is reshaping our minds – we form connections faster, think abstractly better, but can’t concentrate as well, and can’t maintain attention for as long, to gloss crudely – and that book-reading shapes us differently. For me, the book, even an e-book, though I love the feel of paper, is an escape from the debauched madness of the internet. Let me keep something.