Has The Web Made Us Freer?

Linda Besner wonders if the promise of an Internet as a great cultural leveler – granting an audience to obscure artists as well as to the well-known and well-funded – might be wildly overstated:

In The People’s Platform, [author Astra] Taylor discusses how the supposedly open, free, and hierarchy-busting world wide web has failed to do better than a roomful of public television commissioners in encouraging the production or consumption of risky independent cultural products. In fact, it does significantly worse. Internet traffic follows a statistical pattern known as power law distribution; essentially, while there is a wide range of available options, almost everyone is crowded together at the most popular end of the spectrum. It’s a problem that’s getting worse: “In 2001, ten Web sites accounted for 31 per cent of U.S. page views,” Taylor writes, “by 2010, that number had skyrocketed to 75 percent.” Most nights, 40 per cent of the U.S.’s bandwidth is taken up by people watching Netflix movies.

In a similar vein, Dougald Hine challenges notions of the Internet as an agent of “liberation from the boredom of industrial society, a psychedelic jet-spray of information into every otherwise tedious corner of our lives”:

At best, it allows us to distract ourselves with the potentially endless deferral of clicking from one link to another. Yet sooner or later we wash up downstream in some far corner of the web, wondering where the time went. The experience of being carried on these currents is quite different to the patient, unpredictable process that leads towards meaning.

The latter requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge. Find the corners of our lives in which we can unplug, the days on which it is possible to refuse the urgency of the inbox, the activities that will not be rushed. Switch off the infinity machine, not forever, nor because there is anything bad about it, but out of recognition of our own finitude: there is only so much information any of us can bear, and we cannot go fishing in the stream if we are drowning in it.