Saturday, September 6, 2008 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Grouping Recent Net Books: Internet Optimists vs. Pessimists

A number of very interesting books have been released over the past year or two which debate how the Internet is reshaping our culture and the economy. I've reviewed a couple of them here but I have been waiting to compile a sort of mega-book review once I found a sensible way to conceptually group them together. I'm not going to have time to cover each of them here in the detail they deserve, but I think I have at least found a sensible way to categorize them. For lack of better descriptors, I've divided these books and thinkers into two camps: "Internet optimists" versus "Internet Pessimists." Here's a list of some of the individuals and books (or other articles and blogs) that I believe epitomize these two camps of thinking:

Adherents & Their Books / Writings

Internet Optimists

Internet Pessimists

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur

Chris Anderson, The Long Tail and "Free!"

Lee Siegel, Against the Machine

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Nick Carr, The Big Switch

Cass Sunstein, Infotopia

Cass Sunstein,

Don Tapscott, Wikinomics

Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited

Kevin Kelly & Wired mag in general

Alex Iskold, "The Danger of Free"

Mike Masnick & TechDirt blog

Mark Cuban

And here's a rough sketch of the major beliefs or key themes that separate these two schools of thinking about the impact of the Internet on our culture and economy:

Beliefs / Themes

Internet Optimists

Internet Pessimists

Culture / Social

Net is Participatory

Net is Polarizing

Net yields Personalization

Net yields Fragmentation

a "Global village"


Heterogeneity / Diversity of Thought

Homogeneity / Close-mindedness

Net breeds pro-democratic tendencies

Net breeds anti-democratic tendencies

Tool of liberation & empowerment

Tool of frequent misuse & abuse

Economics / Business

Benefits of "free" ("Free" = future of media / business)

Costs of "free" ("Free" = end of media / business)

Increasing importance of "Gift economy"

Continuing importance of property rights, profits, firms

"Wiki" model = wisdom of crowds; power of collective intelligence

"Wiki" model = stupidity of crowds; errors of collective intelligence

Mass collaboration

Individual effort

So, what to make of this intellectual war? Who's got the story right?

Although it will be easy for many in the blogosphere to side with the Internet optimists -- and I would count myself as generally being in the optimist camp -- I think the Net pessimists make many fair points about the disruptive nature of the Internet and how it forcing individuals and industries to completely reconsider the way they live their lives or organize their business affairs. Many Net optimists have a tendency to paint an excessively rosy picture of the transformative nature of the Net. In the extreme, the optimists seem to imply that the Net is somehow remaking man, altering human nature, and changing the economy only for the better. Among the Net optimists, there's often a lot of romanticized talk of collective action / intelligence overcoming all barriers to knowledge or progress, and so on. (Sometimes I am guilty of a bit of that myself in my writing here). Net optimists need to be careful about overstating their case, especially on the economic front, and we would be wise to read the work of the Net pessimists with that criticism in mind.

The problem with the Internet pessimists, however, is that their skepticism often borders on Chicken Little-ism or outright Ludditism. I thought Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur was about as over-the-top as things could get in this regard. (See my 2-part book review here and here), but then I worked my way through Lee Siegel's tedious screed, Against the Machine. It made Keen seem downright reasonable and cheery by comparison! Keen and Siegel seem to be in heated competition for the title "High Prophet of Internet Doom," but Siegel is currently a nose ahead in that race.

Nick Carr is probably the most reasonable and respected of the Net skeptics. He is an enormously gifted writer and I always enjoy reading his books, articles, and blog entries, even when I disagree with him. In The Big Switch, he makes many valid points about the downsides of the gut-wrenching changes that the Net is bringing about. Similarly, in his provocative recent Atlantic article, "Is Google Making us Stupid?", he wonders how the Net is negatively affecting our minds and attention spans. Carr also argues that the Internet economy is increasingly built on a "sharecropper" model that essentially exploits the free labor of the multitudes to make just a handful of major Net operators rich. He makes some interesting points but, ultimately, I think he overstates the problem. Most of us feel we get a lot back as part of this value exchange. Sure, Google, Facebook, and a lot of other Net middlemen are getting big and rich based on all the user-generated content flowing over their sites and systems, but we extract enormous benefits from the existence of those (mostly free and constantly improving) platforms and services.

Nonetheless, the Net pessimists (especially Carr) raise some very legitimate questions about the limitations of the "free culture" mindset. They are on stronger ground when the highlight the problems associated with online piracy, however, than when they are critiquing Wikipedia and the occasional limitations or errors of collaborative endeavors like it. But Wikipedia in particular seems to be an obsession for many of the Net pessimists, especially Carr and Keen.

It is also true, however, that Net optimists like Tapscott and Benkler sometimes make too much out of "wiki" / collective intelligence models, seemingly implying that proprietary business models, private firms, and potentially capitalism itself are passé notions. I disagree. While I think wiki / collective intelligence approaches have their place and play a vitally important role in our new digital economy, the old ways of doing things are still alive and well and producing some wonderful results. For example, "The Dark Knight" wasn't the product of spontaneous collective action, and I still don't see any truly compelling open source video games to compete with the likes of "Madden 2009" or "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed." I think some of the Net optimists get a bit carried away at times when the place too much faith in the "Wikipedia-ization" of everything, or the idea that the Long Tail is somehow "The Future of Business," as the subtitle of Chris Anderson's book suggest. I think that goes much too far. On the other hand, I am huge fan of Wiki & Long Tail models and, like most others, understand their limitations. Those models will play an increasingly important role in the Net economy moving forward whether the Net pessimists like it or not. Bottom line: each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they will continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.

Perhaps when I have more time I will return to this discussion and fill it out more with some passages and quotes from each book. I just don't have the time right now but I will try to do so at some point in the future. Anyway, these are important books that deserve your attention if you are following the debate over the impact the Net is having -- for better or worse -- on our culture and economy.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 4:02 PM | Books & Book Reviews , General