by Alex Massie
As an exercise in provoking bloggers Jonathan Rauch's suggestion that the internet is, like, totally hopeless is splendid. So there's that. But as a plausible critique? Not so much. For instance, he writes:
For people who want to read and think, which is still a lot of people, the worldwide web is an incorrigibly hostile environment. Thank goodness, it is already in the process of being displaced by the far more reader-friendly world of apps, which is hospitable to quality writing and focused reading, as opposed to knee-jerk opinionating and attention-deficit-disordered skimming. The blogging format, I believe, was an outgrowth of a particular technological moment, specifically the gap between the decline of paper and the rise of HTML5. Its heyday is over.
There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them. But they're depressingly rare. If some strange magnetic pulse wiped out every blog post written since the format began, hardly anything memorable or important would be lost; and, after 15 years or whatever, it's too late to hope for maturation. The medium is the problem. The Web is great for shopping and research, but intrinsically lousy for serious reading and writing. Over the past decade and more, the most striking fact about the blogosphere is how little it has produced of distinction or durability.
A man as refined and sensible and intelligent as JR can't possibly mean this, can he? If nothing else the internet makes it easier for me to read Jonathan Rauch and we may all, I hope, agree this is a Good Thing. Most of the time, anyway. But let us take this seriously even if it's not quite designed to be so treated.
The striking fact about novels/songs/poems is how few of them are either distinguished or durable. But so what? No-one would expect anything less and observing this scarcely diminishes the quality of the stuff that really is distinguished and likely to last. Not everything gets to win a medal and why should diarists online be any different?
Moreover, I suspect Rauch will be proved mistaken. Historians analysing the 21st century will surely find blogs a mighty resource just as they presently find diaries and journals and letters useful aids for studying any other part of literate human history. This is true not only of large-scale public events such as 9/11 but also, evidently I should think, for social historians to say nothing of Persian specialists examining the decline of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. In this sense, then, blogs – or at least a representative sample of them – may prove more durable than some people suppose.
But even if they don't, what of it? Does it matter? Surely not. A blog can be many things – and a single blog different things to different readers – and among these, perhaps, are an entertainment, a provocation, a trusty helper, a comfort, an explanation and an inspiration. None of these are useless qualities.
Perhaps it depends upon what you consider important but the internet has made it possible for the casual reader to follow events overseas to a depth and level of detail previously only generally available to specialists. There are many other examples one might cite of this phenomenon but in each case the internet – and the writing done on it – enables huge dollops of thinking and reading.
Rauch's criticisms could equally be lobbed at newspapers. And to an extent they'd be reasonable. Much of what's in the paper each day is pap and a good deal of it is simply wrong too. But that hardly means we'd be better off without newspapers, far less that there'd be more reading and thinking without them. The online world is a noisy, busy, disputatious, crowded place. That means it must often be exasperating but is also what generates excitement and, yup, plenty of excellence too.
For that matter, the internet is now so vast that sweeping generalisations – tempting as always – are now meaningless. The medium has its strengths and weaknesses but the latter are generally limited to inanity or are a consequence of its openess: any fool with a laptop can start shouting. But message boards and blogs are also places where like-minded people come together to discuss their obsessions. This may not always be an edifying or especially elevated conversation but if that's your problem then your argument is with people, not the internet. (And why, pray, are we supposed to be impressed by "serious" writing or reading? Can these things not be simple pleasures too?)
Could it all be better? Sure. But is it hopeless for reading and thinking? Hardly. Indeed it provokes these things even though that's only one measure of its interest or usefulness. There's a lot of good stuff out there!