Why Adam Thierer is Wrong about the Internet

A few years ago, Adam Thierer wrote an essay called “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society”. He has since expanded on this essay, writing numerous other essays that elaborate on or expand the ideas presented in the first.

Adam Thierer is a smart guy, and the things he writes are generally worth reading. And I find that his points, taken individually, are difficult to dispute. But the overall framework that he fits them into is flawed. He presents his dichotomy between ‘internet optimists’ and ‘internet pessimists’ as something obvious and uncontroversial, but it is in fact an oversimplification, and a rather unfortunate one.

The problem with spurious dichotomies like this one is that the myriad points of view that fall outside of it become much easier to ignore. And the longer people think within the terms of the dichotomy, the more entrenched it becomes in the universe of discourse, the harder it becomes to see anything that is outside of it.

Adam Thierer’s dichotomy does have the advantage of being clear and straightforward.  He even gives us a table to map it out:

Optimists Pessimists
Net is participatory Net is polarizing
Net facilitates personalization Net facilitates fragmentation
‘a global village’ balkanization and fears of ‘mob rule’
heterogeneity / encourages diversity of thought and expression homogeneity / Net leads to close-mindedness
allows self-actualization diminishes personhood
Net a tool of liberation and empowerment Net a tool of frequent misuse and abuse
believe Net can help educate fear dumbing-down of masses
anonymous communication is a net good; encourages vibrant debate + whistleblowing fear of anonymity; say it debases culture & leads to lack of accountability
welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learning concern about information overload; esp. impact on learning & reading

This all seems perfectly obvious. And yet it is completely wrong. So many things fall between these two stools that they aren’t really fit to serve as stools at all.

Rather than trying to make a list of all the things that fall between these stools, it might be more illuminating to find one area of contention and show how both sides of the debate manage to ignore all of the evidence that shows that the basis for their debate is almost completely fictional.

Wikipedia serves as a convenient locus for one area of contention, which I am going to call ‘Knowledge on the Internet’.

Wikipedia looms large in squabbles between Optimists and Pessimists. Optimists use Wikipedia as an example of the internet at its best, while pessimists bemoan its many inaccuracies and facile oversimplifications. In many ways, the discussion of knowledge on the internet has become an argument over Wikipedia.

The problem is that ‘Wikipedia’ is a poor synecdoche for knowledge on the internet.  There are simply too many avenues to learning on the web that have nothing to do with Wikipedia or any other crowdsourced body of knowledge.

In the first place, there are enterprises like The Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and Librivox, which provide an immense treasure of traditional, old fashioned book learning, for free, to anyone with internet access. Although there are volunteers involved in these projects, they are not like the volunteers on Wikipedia. They don’t make editorial decisions or authorial contributions, they simply do the work necessary to make traditionally published books available on the web.

Then there are the sites that are managed by educational institutions, like the splendid Perseus Digital Library, which makes vast amounts of scholarly texts available for free to anyone. The Greek and Roman Materials alone would cost in the range of 2,000 dollars to buy in book form.

And then there are the sites that offer information or source materials that would otherwise be very hard to access. One example that comes to mind is this site that provides all manner of primary source materials concerning the life and work of Edwin Armstrong; the inventor of FM radio, the superheterodyne circuit and numerous other circuits that are used in radio and wireless communications to this day. Without this site, it would be hard if not impossible for scholars to access this collection of sources about one of the great American inventors of the 20th century.

I could use up thousands of words listing more of these internet resources, but I am sure that the reader gets the point: the web has greatly enhanced the dissemination of important and formerly quite rare or expensive sources of knowledge. And yet, both optimists and pessimists are strangely quiet about all of this. I can’t say that I have read every page of every book that Adam Thierer listed here, but I have read articles, essays, and blog posts written by all of the authors listed. And I have never seen any of this given more than a passing mention by any of them. Time and again, the ‘pessimists’ assume that knowledge on the internet consists of nothing more than social media, navel-gazing bloggers, crowdsourced wikis, and YouTube videos, while the ‘optimists’ counter that these things are in fact the future of culture.

The truth is that the internet reflects the mental activity of humanity as a whole. ‘High’ culture is there every bit as much as ‘low’ culture, it just attracts less attention, just as it always has. Blaming the internet for this is like blaming public libraries for the fact that Barbara Cartland sold more books than James Joyce.

And this is the key to the problem. We who were born in the twentieth century are habituated to thinking in terms of mass culture. As a consequence, most people, optimists as well as pessimists, technophiles as well as technophobes, view the web through the lens of mass culture. Things that are extremely popular or prevalent get all the attention.

And so when celebrity author Mark Helprin wrote a book called ‘Digital Barbarism’, it was given an 8000 word review by celebrity author Lawrence Lessig, despite the latter’s belief that the book is a ‘careless and uninformed screed’ that is is ‘riddled with the most basic errors of fact’.

And this sort of exchange is typical of this ‘Great Debate’: a celebrity pessimist says something silly, the silly statement (it can range from a sentence to a book) receives an enormous amount of attention, celebrity optimists duly respond, and by a twisted corollary of the Streisand Effect, the silly statement itself becomes elevated to the status of celebrity. The entire thing is little more than what Daniel Boorstin would have called a pseudo-event.

And this is why Adam Thierer is wrong about the internet. His ‘Great Debate’ just isn’t great enough. Fatuous questions like ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ simply aren’t a part of any debate worthy of the adjective ‘great’. Taking such questions seriously lowers the quality of the debate and retards the progress of our understanding of the internet.