Ted Byfield Replies To All | Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS
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Ted Byfield replies to All


Ted Byfield

I wanted to wait a bit because it seemed like it'd be more interesting to
listen to all of you.

There used to be a name for what I was doing, "lurking" -- it dates back to a
very different time in the net's history, when usenet and mailing lists were
the main forms of communication. It was hard to talk about lurkers then, for
the obvious reason that no one knew much about them; it hasn't gotten much
easier since.

The idea of lurkers has all but vanished now, buried by a succession of ways to
try and slice and dice them: "eyeballs," pageviews, users, subscribers,
friends, followers, etc, etc. I think these changes are relevant in this
context because Doug's initial questions put a lot of emphasis on expression:
participation and activism on the one hand, and a concern that "social
networks" (as if there were any other kind) might be diminishing the quality of
people's engagement, on the other. But the vast, vast majority of activity
surrounding the net isn't 'expressive' in the sense of leading to overtly
"creative" output: instead, it's people clicking around, reading, absorbing,
procrastinating, relaxing, etc. There seems to be a lot of temptation to
interpret this kind of ambiguity in the worst light, but the fact is that we
don't know what it leads to, in general let alone in any specific instance.

That pessimistic view is closely related to perspective(s) of people who are
trying to make money off of lurkers, because "monetizing" (a really ugly word)
them and their actions sooner or later requires connecting whatever they're
clicking on or reading or whatever to some kind of action -- preferably, some
sort of expenditure.

It took several years, more, for Americans to settle in to the idea of spending
money "on" the net -- and we were coming from a fairly open (I won't say
"liberal") society. But many have, and the result is a net that -- to use
another old geeky phrase -- is deeply intertwingled with consumption. And now
to my point. That intensely sophisticated and commercialized net is the version
that many other societies are encountering in a much fresher way.

That's good and bad. The good news is that it works much better: software,
systems integration, connections, interfaces are much easier to deal with. The
bad news is that it's a much more complicated and risky environment.

For example, the confidentiality of things like server logs tracing people's
activities used to be sacrosanct; now, more and more business models are
metaphorical ways to generate and rent out access to that info. Moreover,
manufacturers on the "hardware" side know very well who their customers are --
national states, telcos, big-league ISPs -- and are happy to tailor their
offerings to the needs of those customers: "firewalls" and filters,
redirection, surveillance.

My point isn't to spread (to use another old geekism) FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty,
and Doubt. NOT AT ALL. Instead, it's to point out that more and more people are
"participating" without even realizing it. They may be experiencing things in
terms very much like Doug proposed: based on the new ideas they're learning
about -- issues, perspectives, organizations, actions -- many are no doubt
sorting out their feelings. But as their thoughts are increasingly expressed in
terms of clicks, what may seem very private to them is less and less so.

In some ways -- and certainly in some contexts -- this is really worrisome. But
if we're going to ask big questions about democracy and sustainable
sociability, it makes sense to take the long view. I'm certain that more access
to information will tend, in the long run, to make people and populations more
cosmopolitan. That's a really good thing.

But it definitely has downsides, too. Steve Cisler, one of my quiet heroes who
passed away a few years ago -- a huge loss -- pointed out to me several years
ago that as more and more people in isolated circumstances "interact" with
idealized representations (which are typically urban), their immediate lives
can very quickly come to seem intolerably remote and dull. And they leave. In
that way (and many others), the net is contributing to the destruction of more
traditional societies.

While the net is hardly the "cause" of urbanization, I don't think there's any
doubt that it's facilitating mass migration. It pulls people with images, it
pushes them by destabilizing traditional markets, and just about everything in
between -- for example, it enables cheap communication with family and friends
(mobile phones, Skype, etc), and by offering more ways to send remunerations
back home. It isn't something you just access, use, or click on.

So the problem is simple (ha!). We can ask how the net is changing this or that
term we're comfortable with, but I think it's a part -- a very central part --
of a much deeper shift: the terms we're comfortable with are less and less able
to describe what's going on. Democracy is an excellent example: people within a
given jurisdiction might have disagreed, even violently, about this or that
issue, but they more or less agreed on the terms of debate. We can't take that
for granted anymore, because if we do we run a very serious risk of excluding
what for lack a better term I'll call new arrivals. Democracy speaks to people
who *know* they live in a particular place; but more and more people are
uncertain, transitional, or tenuously connected to where they happen to be. The
task -- self-determination -- remains the same.

(Oh, and BTW: Twitter and Facebook ain't it.)

I've sprinted though a few dozen impossibly complicated issues in a very
on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand way, which is a bit frustrating. On the one
hand (yes!), I think it's important to acknowledge just how deeply the net is
changing the fabric of the societies (very definitely in the plural) within
which we'll necessarily ask these kinds of questions. On the other hand, I wish
I had some clearer answers.

At this point, the usual conclusion would be something like "and now I'll go
back to lurking." I'll try not to.

Cheers, Ted

posted February 2, 2010

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