06 May 2007

Phoney handwringing about the web

I gather Andrew Keen was on the radio this morning, claiming that the free cultural output generated by bloggers and other web authors is ruining the economy, because it undermines those who do the same thing for a living. As an economic argument that rings false.

(Although it does make me wonder how some people can blog as much as they do, when they don't seem to be getting paid for it. Their jobs must leave them with plenty of time on their hands, or else there is some kind of complementarity going on which enhances the productivity of their employment.)

Whatever the reasons, if it were true that one kind of activity is being displaced (rather than supplemented) by an apparently unremunerated version of the same thing, that would simply be the economy transforming itself, not the economy being damaged. Economies change, don't you know, and in the process some activities/jobs are lost while others are created. To use a phoney phrase, get used to it.

I personally regard it as a good sign when people get irritated by web power, because it demonstrates that it can have a genuine impact. You expect some people's noses to be put out of joint when something meaningful is going on. Whereas silly endorsements like Time's "you are all Person of the Year" award make me think the opposite, i.e. they suggest that the blogosphere is perceived as sweetly amateurish and unthreatening.

The point of the web and blogosphere, as far as I'm concerned, isn't to focus digital democracy, or wisdom of crowds, both of which are overrated concepts in my opinion. Rather, they provide an opportunity to loosen the stranglehold of the il-liberal, pseudified cultural establishment. That's why I think Wikipedia is predominantly a "good thing", quite apart from being incredibly useful. It may be a bit weak in one or two areas e.g. recent political history, but by and large it is marked by a distinct absence of the phoneyness and obscurantism that characterise vast tracts of contemporary philosophy, economics, physics, psychology, history, etc.

So when I see people like Keen, or Jaron Lanier, or Oliver Kamm, spout nonsense about how the web is pernicious, I think "these people have basically aligned themselves, for whatever reason, with the establishment, and their comments are mainly an expression of that particular alignment, rather than of anything usefully analytical."