Just back from the fair cities of Vancouver and Amsterdam (surely lovely twins in some other life), where I spoke at Vidfest and Picnic. But whether I'm in British Columbia or the Netherlands, it's the same question that everyone is asking me. Why am I the only critic of Web 2.0, people want to know? Why aren't there other voices being raised against the utopians of Silicon Valley?
My answer is that I'm not the only voice. There are others warning about the corrosive consequences of our metaphysical faith in technology. But these voices certainly aren't coming from within either the traditional technology or digital media communities. One incredibly important voice is John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, whose stunning Straw Dogs is a full frontal attack on the hubris of modern, technological man. In Straw Dogs, Gray argues against "humanism" -- the absurd idea that we, as humans, control our destinies, that we are in charge of our lives, that we are different from all other life forms on the planet:
"Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. this is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans."
At Picnic this week in Amsterdam, I debated David Weinberger, the author of Everything is Miscellaneous. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg moderated our discussion. Weinberger gave a classically "humanist" speech about the liberating possibilities of information technology. He ended in a climax of vulgar optimism, promising the Dutch audience that Web 2.0 technology could bring all of us "out of alienation" (what are we alienated from, I wonder). Weinberger wants today's Internet to reflect what he calls the "complexity" of human existence. I responsed that the purpose of media is both simple and simplifying -- to inform and entertain. Media isn't philosophy, I argued, it isn't supposed to liberate us from anything (except ignorance, of course). But instead of getting all philosophical, I should have simply read Weinberger a couple of sentences from Straw Dogs:
Technical progress leaves one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.
Gray nails Web 2.0 humanists like Weinberger. Technology, these utopians believe, allows us to realize our "humanity". Oh dear. When will they learn that technical progress only compounds the frailty of human nature? When will they learn that -- to quote Gray again -- "free will is a trick of perspective"?