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Sliced Bread 2.0

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the better pencilUniversity of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the success of the internet.

You’ve heard the Luddite gripes about the digital age: computers dehumanize us; text messages are destroying the language; Facebook replaces real friends with imaginary ones; instant messages and blogs give people a voice who have nothing to say. But now a new set of complaints is emerging, this time from computer scientists, internet pioneers who once promised that the digital revolution was the best thing since sliced bread, no, that it was even better, Sliced Bread 2.0.

It started in the mid-1990s with Clifford Stoll. You may remember Stoll as the Berkeley programmer who tracked down a ring of eastern European hackers who were breaking into secure military computers, and wrote up the adventure in the 1990 best-seller, The Cuckoo’s Egg. But a mere five years later Stoll published Silicon Snake Oil, a condemnation of the internet as oversold and underperforming. In a 1995 Newsweek op-ed, Stoll summed up the internet’s failed promise of happy telecommuters, online libraries, media-rich classrooms, virtual communities, and democratic governments in one word: “Baloney.”

More nuanced is the critique of Jaron Lanier, the programmer who brought us virtual reality, but who now labels life online “digital maoism.” In a recent interview in the Guardian, Lanier charged that after thirty years the great promise of a free and open internet has brought us not burgeoning communities of online musicians, artists, and writers, but “mediocre mush”; a pack mentality; recreations of things that were better done with older technologies; an occasional Unix upgrade; and an online encyclopedia. His conclusion: it’s all “pretty boring.”

And although internet guru Jonathan Zittrain praises the first personal computers and the early days of the internet for promoting unlimited creativity and exploration, he warns that the generative systems which enabled users to create new ways of being and communicating are giving way to tethered devices like smart phones, Kindles, Tivos, and iPads, all of which channel our communications and program our entertainment along safe and familiar paths and prohibit inventive tinkering. Zittrain reminds us that the PC was a blank slate, a true tabula rasa that let imaginative, technically-accomplished users repurpose it over and over again, but he fears that the internet appliance of the future will be little more than a hi-tech toaster programmed to let us do only what the marketing departments at Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon want us to do.

It’s easy to ignore the Luddites. The internet isn’t destroying English (you’re reading this online, right?) or replacing face-to-face human interaction (Facebook or no Facebook, babies continue to be born). Plus, we’re all using computers and the ‘net, so how bad can they be?

But what about the informed critiques of experts like Stoll, Jaron, and Zittrain? Are they right that we’ve been drinking snake oil all along? Or worse yet, Kool-Aid?

Zittrain is right: my iPhone doesn’t have the flexibility of my laptop. But even though technically my laptop is programmable, I can’t write code for it, so I never could repurpose a computer to do something new. But my iPhone’s got a lot more features than the rotary dial phone that AT&T let me borrow half a century ago, and while like many people I text a lot more than I talk with it, and I appreciate the iPhone’s ability to check movie schedules, play Bach and Satie, find directions, and take snapshots on the go, I don’t expect my phone to double as pen and paper or as a digital SLR. I don’t want an app for that.

As for the internet, although it has yet to house digital copies of all that was ever thought or writ, it does offer plenty to read. It may indeed support mush, as Lanier reminds us, but it also encourages communities of artists, musicians, and writers, and it enables all of us to create and publish content, even if that content’s sometimes not very good. Social networking sites do redefine “friend” in a superficial way, but no one’s fooled by that, and they’ve proved vital in reinforcing face-to-face friendships when face-to-face isn’t possible. And yes, the web still supports rugged individualism as well as herd mentality.

Despite what critics say, digital technologies are still letting us create new modes of communication as well as leading us down paths laid out by Verizon and Skype. They’re promoting democracy, fomenting revolution, and bolstering tyranny. They’re encouraging expression as well as stifling it. They’re bringing us news as well as propaganda. And when they’re not tempting us with free shipping and no sales tax, they’re letting us critique Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, or even find alternatives to the great online monopolies.

Sometimes the digital revolution plays out better than the futurologists promised, sometimes worse than the naysayers warned. But mostly it falls somewhere in between, or simply goes in directions no one could ever have foreseen. Along the way, with its innovations and pitfalls, it has become indispensable for many of us. The critics are right to warn us of the internet’s failures or the paths we should avoid, but they’re wrong to assume a bleak future of monopoly, mediocrity, and government oversight.

All communication technologies have brought corporatization (remember Ma Bell and the feared but mythical telephone police?), mediocre mush (television, which FCC commissioner Newton Minow characterized as a “vast wasteland”?), and censorship (even Shakespeare couldn’t put on a play without first obtaining a permit). Despite the many benefits of the printing press, it too created opportunities for fraud, lies, and evil. Oh yes, and a whole lot of mediocre mush. But while most people accept the risks of these technologies because they want the benefits, when the restrictions on communication become cumbersome or stultifying, there are always innovators and subverters who find new ways to get the word out, and new genres to clothe the word in.

Whatever it is and wherever it’s going, the digital revolution should only disappoint those who believed the hype in the first place, the unrealistic view of a spectacular Tomorrowland that may illuminate our disappointments with today, but has little to do with the disasters, triumphs, or non-events that tomorrow will really bring.

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