|What sort of revolution?
Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Both good and bad—but it's too early to say in what proportions
AS A rule, some people, such as Jacobins, tend to be more enthusiastic about revolutions than others, such as monarchs. Another fairly reliable rule is that revolutions abrupt enough to be associated with a single year (1642, 1789, 1848, 1917) tend to cause trouble but rarely bring lasting change. By contrast, revolutions gradual enough to be associated with a name (Renaissance, Reformation, Industrial Revolution) often do have enduring effects. A third rule, or hypothesis, might be that revolutions seem never to be entirely for the better or the worse, but somehow manage to combine both.
This survey has argued that society is in the early phases of what appears to be a media revolution on the scale of that launched by Gutenberg in 1448. This invites comparisons. There are Jacobins and monarchs to be found in both revolutions. In the first, the Jacobins were, by turns, printers, publishers, Protestants and writers; in today's revolution, the Jacobins tend to be those bloggers, vloggers and podcasters that bay for the blood of the odious “MSM” (mainstream media). As to monarchs, the first revolution had popes, monasteries and the real thing; today's revolution has, well, the MSM. Both revolutions are firmly in the category of gradualist, name-not-year revolutions.
That leaves benefits and evils. Gutenberg's revolution undoubtedly had enormous democratising effects. It enabled entire populations to read the Bible in their own language, liberating them from Latinate clergies that had kept them in superstitious serfdom. Further on in the revolution, people got news from far-flung corners of the world; one of the things that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville during his travels through America in 1831 was that even frontier families in remote Michigan had weekly newspapers delivered to their doorsteps. And the dramatically lower cost of disseminating the written word allowed many more people to express themselves creatively.
Each of these benefits also seems to have had a dark side. The availability of religious texts in the vernacular led to literalist and fundamentalist movements, and indirectly to religious wars. The surge of textual expression produced not only classics but also pornography and propaganda. Printing presses reproduced “Mein Kampf” just as accurately as the Gospels.
Against this backdrop, the big thinkers about today's media revolution tend to veer towards extremes of optimism or pessimism. Often the alignments are surprising. For instance, Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist who became famous for spotting both Yahoo! and Google, has a strongly pessimist streak. He worries about “amplification of the internet soapbox” and imagines what role user-generated media would have played in “1931 in Munich, how easy it would have been to broadcast the message; I think the Nazis would have got power quicker.”
Paul Saffo, a futurologist and one of the world's most enthusiastic technophiles, also looks at the downside. “Each of us can create our own personal-media walled garden that surrounds us with comforting, confirming information and utterly shuts out anything that conflicts with our world view,” he says. “This is social dynamite” and could lead to “the erosion of the intellectual commons holding society together...We risk huddling into tribes defined by shared prejudices.”
Now for the optimists: Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a research foundation, believes that “people will become not less but more aware of differing arguments as they become heavier internet users,” because contradictory views are just a hyperlink away. A survey by Pew appears to confirm this view. Mr Anderson of “The Long Tail” says that “opinion is a marketplace, and marketplaces work when you have liquidity.” Liquidity is exactly what participatory media provide.
Some people worry about what the new media will do not only to democracy but also to brains, thoughts, grammar and attention spans. These concerns usually arise out of encounters with teenagers in their native habitat—ie, in front of screens with several simultaneous instant-messaging “threads” (“cu2nite bfz4evr”—“see you tonight and best friends forever”), besides iTunes and a video game running in the background, blogs in the foreground, and homework in the small window to the bottom right.
Other people are not worried at all. Steven Johnson, the author of “Everything Bad is Good for You”, argues that the very things about new-media culture that scare older generations actually make younger generations smarter, because participatory media train kids from an early age to sift through and discard clutter, thus “enhancing our cognitive abilities, not dumbing them down”.
Linda Stone, a former executive at both Apple Computer and Microsoft and now a consultant, argues that the affliction of “continuous partial attention” is in fact a hallmark of the era that is now ending, not the one that is starting. For the past two decades, Ms Stone thinks, many people have felt overwhelmed and anxious, constantly afraid that they could miss out on social opportunities if they concentrate on any one thing. This is now producing its own backlash, Ms Stone argues, because as people “long for protection and meaningful connections, quality over quantity”, they are “discovering the joy of focusing”.
Many new-media companies understand this, she says. Just as Google calms the chaos of the web with a clean white page, other companies are working on the filtering technologies that could—counter-intuitively, perhaps—make the era of participatory media more serene than the era of mass media.
The honest conclusion, of course, is that nobody knows whether the era of participatory media will, on balance, be good or bad. As with most revolutions, it is a question of emphasis. Generally speaking, people who have faith in democracy welcome participatory media, whereas people who have reservations will be nostalgic for the top-down certainties of the mass media. Joseph de Maistre, a conservative who lived through the French Revolution, famously said that “every country has the government it deserves.” In the coming era, more than ever before, every society will get the media it deserves.