Celebrity 2006

The consequences of the Web 2.0 revolution are of great civic significance. If we treat "digital democracy" as inevitable, then we are endangering our liberal tradition of individual rights and responsibilities. But few people seem to get this. Few people grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Where have you gone, Neil Postman?

Postman, the author, amongst other things, of the classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, and the most incisive late 20th century cultural critic of technology, died in 2003. But there are other critics with the intellectual imagination to grasp our predicament. In Europe, Habermas certainly gets it, as does Slavoj Zizek in his own peculiarly postmodern way. In America, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Albert Borgmann are both highly perceptive critics of digital democracy. So is Cas Sunstein, the University of Chicago Law professor and author of the provocative Republic.com. Then there is Neal Gabler, whose Life: The Movie is a prescient, albeit pre Web 2.0, warning about the transformation of life into entertainment.

Gabler's work contains the critical spirit of Postman. But Gabler is also indebted to Richard Schickel's classic 1985 work Intimate Strangers, which he calls "the single most important book about the subject of celebrity." Reading Gabler led me to Schickel's work, in particular to the afterword of the book's 2000 reprint. Here is Schickel, in this afterword, on late twentieth century celebrity in America:

In 1985 I did not foresee the democratization of celebrity that has occurred over the last decade and a half. There is nothing less than a megatrend, affecting the way we understand our own potential as well as our ability to impose our formerly anonymous selves on the public life of our times."

So even Schickel didn't see, in 1985, how celebrity would be democratized by technology. But, by 2000, Schickel certainly saw the impact of the Inernet on the concept of celebrity:

"But two things about the Net are obvious: the first is that for many it provides a way of instantaneously hawking their ideas and opinions without delay for reflection; the other is that it can grant anyone who chooses to make use of this capacity the illusion of celebrity. It is an "outlet" for opinion, grievance, rumor, spite that can make you -- at the very least -- a legend in your own mind."

Schickel ends this 2000 afterword on a note of deep pessimism:

"The Western liberal tradition has always depended -- perhaps more than it has cared to admit -- on authority, on the guidance of the learned, the reflective, the witty, as it confronted its political and economic crises, as it sought to create a culture that was substantive, morally acute, and occasionally delightful. That culture is now under radical threat -- the more so since its radicalism is unacknowledged and poses simply as irresistible progress."

Six years have elapsed since Schickel wrote these ominous words. In 2000, there was no My Space, no Bebo, no YouTube. One can only wonder what Schickel, who is still Time magazine's movie critic, now makes of the Web 2.0 world, with its millions of digital celebrities, all legends in their own minds.