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Is today’s Internet killing our culture?

By Xu Xinlei (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-12-28 14:20
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Do you take the comforts of the Computer Age for granted? How many hours do you spend surfing the Internet every day? If you already are an Internet maniac, sorry, you are about to be the next one to suffer from self-destruction.

In his new book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, published in 2007, American entrepreneur and Internet critic Andrew Keen took a penetrating look at the Internet with a critical mind. In it, he argues against the idea of a read-write culture in media, stating that "most of the content being shared— no matter how many times it has been linked, cross-linked, annotated, and copied— was composed or written by someone from the sweat of their creative brow and the disciplined use of their talent."

His idea finds an echo in China. Says Wang Xiaofeng, a chief editor of Lifeweek—a Chinese magazine of modern topics—“I agree with 99 percent of his ideas. I used to criticize the Internet in my blogs. Though I am not an Internet professional and can’t give any professional criticism, my instincts tell me that the Internet is destroying the beautiful homeland we are building. Its damaging effect to the culture is much more serious than the contribution it is making.”

For those drunk with the beauty of user-generated content, peer production and other Web2.0-related phenomena, their words may sound like a cyber-Chicken Little.

The arrival of the Information Age, together with increasingly advanced computer technology, allows them to gain access to immense amounts of information (Wikileaks is just one example) and reach every corner of world with the help of Google Maps.

Another blessing is that the Internet has improved our quality of life. Today we can easily find and communicate with our friends with a few clicks on Facebook, a social network marked with “heavy emotional investment of its users” (that may explain why the founder Mark Zuckerberg was on the cover of Time). We watch videos on Youtube; we shop on Ebay; we play games on GG Game. Admittedly, the Internet is changing the very way of our social culture. We human beings in some sense have become connected with different computers and servers located in other parts of the world.

So what does the future hold if we are disconnected?

Imagine one day we return to the basics: we read news papers, we walk to the office, we write with pens, we chat with our friends face to face in a café, we buy clothes with our friends at the mall, and we play games before the TV set together.

Is it much better?

In his book, Andrew Keen accuses the Internet of promoting social harms such as gambling and pornography."It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements have resulted in social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles." He sees "cultural standards and moral values" as being "at stake" due to new media innovations.

He also warns against a future "when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule." Every day, millions of amateurs are uploading, writing and upgrading content through the information highway, making the Internet a colorful yet messy place. Often seen are nonsensical political comments, indecent videos, embarrassing amateur music and obscure essays and novels. Andrew Keen predicts that if this trend is left unchecked, 500 million blogs will appear by the end of 2010 and they will confuse the public’s knowledge of politics, economics, art and culture.

This assumption runs counter to the public belief that the Internet has brought society a spirit of openness and freedom. People today use online forums, comments boards and social network sites as places where they learn and share. They see what others are doing and give them their feedback. But verbal abuse and false information are commonplace these days, as shown in the Louis-Cha-is-dead news widely spread in China’s micro blogs, a piece of news that led to the resignation of China News Week’s deputy editor-in-chief because he failed to review content when his employee released the news in their official micro blog.

That may explain why Andrew Keen is opposed to mass participation in ideological exchanges. He believes that the interactive version of the Web fundamentally undermines the authority of mainstream media, and at the same time leads to a crisis for professional journalism, professional recorded music, newspapers, radio stations, television and publishing—“the core of our culture.”

“The great success of the Internet is not in its technical, but in its human impact,” writes David Clark, a senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, in his Who’s Who in the Internet (RFC 1336). “The continued growth of the Internet is a technical challenge to all of us, but we must never lose sight of where we came from, the great change we have worked on the larger computer community, and the great potential we have for future change.”

To connect or disconnect? It is all up to you.

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