Dr Aleks Krotoski has put together an interesting series in The Virtual Revolution which holds together well, but it’s rather poor when it comes to analysis. I couldn’t help cringing every time she mentioned how many years she’s been writing/researching the internet. Alas, the many years do not make up for lack of depth.
For Dr Krotoski the ‘virtual revolution’, the technological revolution of the internet, is all about freedom: freedom of information, freedom of expression, and freedom to link with the rest of the world. This is certainly an aspect of the internet, but the ‘virtual revolution’ is a revolution of means of communications and, to an extent, of means of production, not a revolution of ideas. By conflating ideas with means one gets a distorted picture of what is going on and how changes are affecting us. Naturally, changes at the technological and production level will impact on ideas, but they are two separate issues and the distinction needs to be made.
The programme tries to cover the opportunities and the ‘dangers’ of the internet, such as addiction. Parents are concerned about the time spent by their children in front of the computer, but it gets dismissed as no more than a whinge, after all, they would have done the same if the internet had been available when they were teenagers. That might be the case but it does not counter the concerns over the effects of prolonged internet use. To interact with others ‘virtually’ is very different from interacting in real life. Its effects are at least something worth pondering about.
The programme is nice and swish in presenting this ‘new’ world but rather crass in understanding it. The point is not about 'internet = good or bad?' It is not even 'internet = good and bad'. The point should be about asking questions, such as how does technology change how we live, work, interact with others and how we think?
Dr Krotoski does not engage with criticism and seemingly dismisses Prof Greenfield’s concerns as ‘extremist views’. As I have written before, I think that the panic over what the internet is doing to our brains is over the top. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ technology changes how we interact with others, with information and how we view ourselves. There’s no point in pretending that we are not being changed by it. Dr Krotoski does not suggests this, but by omitting analysis, one is not sure what on earth she’s suggesting aside from ‘the internet is (deep down) a good thing, there are dangers (e.g. cyber terrorism), but the overarching idea is a noble one’. Well, that’s tosh.
Greenfield’s accusations of a culture of immediacy, where everything is literal and there’s no place for meaning, are not completely flawed. There are clear similarities with the invention of the printing press. The introduction of the printing press has revolutionised the world. It has made knowledge open to people who, until then, had been excluded. It has also changed how we read a text. There are, of course, positives and negatives.
On the one hand, such availability allows people to interpret the text contrary to the interpretation of the established authority, thus challenging dogmas and even the make up of the authority. It can lead to further democratisation and freedom of conscience, speech and expression. On the other hand, unmediated access to the text (which now can be video/audio etc.) can lead to fundamentalist readings based on literalism. This type of fundamentalism relies on the lack of reflection and criticism over how the text has been put together and interpreted throughout history of interpretation. In the case of contemporary texts, the lack of concern for how it has been edited, written/produced and, in many cases, manipulated leads people to follow blindly the message without exercising critical judgement.
The internet allows more diversity which means more clashes and more accommodation of views. It allows propaganda and accurate information. It allows niche markets of information/products that otherwise would have been very costly (I can watch Murnau for free on youtube!). It’s great, it’s dangerous and is the seed for a new world. That's why it deserves some proper research!