Not all internet intellectuals are created equal

Evgeny Morozov has a brutal review of Jeff Jarvis’s latest book up at The New Republic. Here’s a quick bit:

HAD JARVIS WRITTEN his book as self-parody—as a cunning attack on the narrow-mindedness of new media academics who trade in pronouncements so pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous that even the nastiest of post-modernists appear lucid and sensible in comparison—it would have been a remarkable accomplishment. But alas, he is serious. This is a book that should have stayed a tweet.

There are at least a dozen equally harsh parts. As it turns out, I’m not a big Jarvis fan. I’ve tried to read his blog before but found it tiring. Morozov uses Jarvis as an intellectual punching bag, picking vapid quotes and highlighting misinterpretations of more serious scholars. To some extent any “public intellectual” can be criticized for not bringing the depth of academic work to bear on the subject, but for my money if you’re looking to balance seriousness and accessibility you can do better than Jarvis. I go to Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen for slightly brainer but still public-facing thoughts on much the same subjects. (Here’s something recent from Shirky that I liked.) And of course, one can go more academic still into Lessig, Benkler, Wu, Zittrain, etc.

More importantly, someone could write a similar screed against anti-internet thinkers like Carr and Keen. But they’d be picking on the weak ones, rather than taking on more able opponents like Morozov or Matt Hindman. So what’s Morozov’s real beef?

Why worry about the growing dominance of such digitalism? The reason should be obvious. As Internet-driven explanations crowd out everything else, our entire vocabulary is being re-defined. Collaboration is re-interpreted through the prism of Wikipedia; communication, through the prism of social networking; democratic participation, through the prism of crowd-sourcing; cosmopolitanism, through the prism of reading the blogs of exotic “others”; political upheaval, through the prism of the so-called Twitter revolutions.

Morozov specifically references Benkler here:

Of course, there is no denying that the Internet alters our ideational and cognitive landscapes. A civilization that prides itself on building a Wikipedia is likely to have certain ideas about democratic participation, cooperation, research, expertise, and human nature. (The title of a 2009 talk by Yochai Benkler, the smartest Internet utopian and in many ways the anti-Jarvis, captures the stakes quite well: “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time.”)

think about Yochai Benkler’s work in a slightly different way. Rather than crowding out, it’s opening doors. We don’t re-interpret collaboration through the prism of Wikipedia, as much as Wikipedia gives us a lens to better understand collaboration. As with all good science, the metric is usefulness. I get Morozov’s worry here, but don’t think it need apply to the quality work being done by serious scholars. In that sense, the problem is the abusers of digitalism, not digitalism itself.

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