Confessions of an Internet iconoclast

I'm the featured bomb-thrower on BBC Radio 4's Iconoclasts show tomorrow night at 8.00 pm. Below is the short speech I will give that outlines my views...


It’s not surprising that, as an Internet iconoclast, I’ve been anointed as the Anti Christ of Silicon Valley. The Internet is viewed with such innate religiosity inside Silicon Valley that anyone who dares question its economic, cultural or moral value is inevitably labeled an apostate. And my own apostasy is all the more heretical to insiders because I’ve dared to question the most sacred of all Silicon Valley beliefs – the notion that it is economically, culturally and morally good to have technology that allows all of us to author our own writing, music and movies on the Internet.

This ideal of self-authored Internet content is known as the Web 2.0 revolution.  Websites such as YouTube and MySpace and technologies such as blogs and wikis are supposedly democratizing our culture by allowing anyone to author their own online content. My own apostasy has been to argue that this revolution in self-authored content is bad. Rather than the flowering of democracy, I fear that Web 2.0 is resulting in cultural chaos, economic catastrophe and moral decay.

Now, of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either self-expression or self-authoring technology, either on or off the Internet. The problem, though, is when Web 2.0 technology is idealized as a way of undermining conventional talent and of replacing the wisdom of traditional experts with the innocence of online amateurs. And that’s exactly how Silicon Valley’s dreamers – who, perhaps not uncoincidentally, own the highly profitable companies that sell the tools to enable this explosion of self-expression – have framed the Web 2.0 revolution.

Their radical democratic dream has, unfortunately, become our collective nightmare. The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 technology has meant that the cult of the amateur has gone mainstream and is now seriously dumbing-down our culture. Today’s Internet is democracy gone wild. There are now billions of free blog diaries, free YouTube videos, free Facebook pages, free flickr photographs, free Wikipedia entries, even free self-authored pornography, but less and less authoritative or beautiful content on the Internet. The web has become a cacophony of unregulated, personalized, often anonymous and generally worthless opinion in which everyone is talking simultaneously but nobody is listening to anyone else. Rather than a democratic utopia of creative amateurs, this self-broadcasting Internet revolution is actually leading to mass ignorance and to a pervasive culture of digital narcissism.

As both a cause and an effect of the rise of this radically democratic Web 2.0 revolution, our traditional meritocracy of proven experts is in crisis. Newspapers are laying off more and more skilled journalists, music labels are shutting down entirely, traditional knowledge workers, book publishers and even librarians are all scrambling to survive in a fast changing economy. It’s the perfect storm for accredited media professionals who have acquired their skills through education, hard work and self-discipline but who are now being marginalized by the Internet’s cult of the amateur author.

The biggest financial problem is that the supposedly new media economy of blogs and YouTube videos isn’t making the content creators much money. That’s because today’s digital technology has made almost all content free, thereby undermining media’s historically successful business model of selling content to consumers. The music industry, for example, has been decimated by an online plague of kleptomania. But it’s not just the Internet thieves who are killing our culture. Even the best blogs, like the Huffington Post, give their content away for free and don’t pay their contributors. The greatest losers, then, in this great cultural transformation are our traditional creative class – professional musicians, journalists, film-makers, photographers and animators -- who are now struggling to monetize their talent in an advertising saturated economy where all the serious cash is being channeled to technology providers like Google, YouTube and MySpace.

Knowledge and truth are both being turned upside down by today’s Internet. Mainstream media was once a place we went to in order to be educated by disinterested experts about an impersonal world outside our immediate experience. But today’s Internet has become an extension of that familiar personal realm, where we go to broadcast ourselves to friends instead of learning from strangers.. Rather than Marshall McLuhan’s dream of a global electronic village, the web is fragmenting society into a billion intimate hamlets, dragging it back into a discordant pre-Enlightenment dark age where all truth is personal and all knowledge local.

So what to do and who to trust? I’m no Luddite and I accept that we can’t rewind back to a pre-digital age. But I’m also opposed to a mindless determinism that treats all technological progress as inevitable and thus good. Human-beings create technology and it lies with us to take responsibility for the consequences of the Web 2.0 revolution. Digital utopians have crowned the“citizen-journalist” as their bereted hero of the insurrection – the Trotsky 2.0 of this brave new digital world. But, rather than the self broadcaster, my hero of the Internet age is the citizen who acknowledges his ignorance about things, who keeps her mouth shut, who uses media to learn about and enjoy the world from other better informed and more talented than themselves.

If such apostasy makes me the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley, then so be it. Somebody needs to tell the truth about today’s interactive Internet. Somebody needs to explain the corrosive economic, cultural and moral consequences of a Web 2.0 world in which beauty, talent and knowledge are all being amateurized by the online mob.