The Web 2.0 debate is seeping out of Silicon Valley into the real world. On March 9, Jürgen Habermas, perhaps Europe’s most influential social thinker, was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the advancement of human rights. In his acceptance speech, he spoke about the Web 2.0 threat to intellectual life in the West:
"Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus."
Habermas is right. The Internet does indeed have a subversive impact on political life in authoritarian regimes. Thus the significance and value of blogs and bloggers in Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea and any other regime where the state, for ideological reasons, still attempts to monopolize media. This is the Orwell model of rebellion to Big Brother. It’s the old 20th century dystopia. Nightmare 1.0, to use the binary language of Silicon Valley.
But in the West, where there is no Orwellian state seeking to monopolize information or ideology, Habermas is correct to say that the growth of citizen media actually undermines intellectual life. To repeat Habermas’ warning:
The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.
In a word: anarchy. As Habermas says, the Web 2.0 revolution does away with the traditional filter of editors. So all we have left is an electronic media that spews out unedited opinion. The naive online reader no longer has a professional guide to help them distinguish between the writing of Jurgen Habermas and the ranting of some poor uneducated soul from the depths of the blogosphere. This is our 21st dystopia: nightmare 2.0 -- the increasingly real threat of a flattened, radically democratized media.
The Web 2.0 camp, from Silicon Valley’s techno-utopians to the leveller libertarians of the blogosphere, have no respect or value for intellectuals, whether they be on the political left or the right. In their minds, the very idea of an “intellectual” smacks of elitism and injustice. So the great achievement of the Web 2.0 is the undermining of the idea of a specialist, an expert, an intellectual. For more on the destructive consequences of this idealism, see my Weekly Standard review of Glenn Reynolds’ An Army of Davids.
Stay tuned for more on Jurgen Habermas’ arguments about Web 2.0. Next step is to invite him onto the afterTV show to discuss his views in more detail.