Wired author Ryan Singel wrote an article about the Huffington Post “being accused of slimy business practices by a handful of smaller publications who say the site is unfairly copying and publishing their content.” Singel quotes Moser, an editor at alternative weekly Chicago Reader, saying:
If the future of journalism – which everyone keeps telling me The Huffington Post represents – is a bunch of search-engine optimization scams, we have bigger problems than Sam Zell’s bad investment strategies.
Let me quote Plato in Phaedrus.
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth… he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. …To him came Theuth and showed his inventions… when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them …this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls …the specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Nobody challenges the importance of letters in our world any more, not even philosophers who use them for elaborating their thoughts. Socrates was not an ordinary philosopher, but a wise and enlightened man who reached spiritual heights beyond conceptual thoughts.
But the rest of us know how important letters are and how they as a medium have been used for keeping power. If Don Abbondio in the novel The Betrothed used the power of latinorum on the simple Renzo, the power of literacy nowadays is replicated in bureaucratic or legal language. The power of that medium is so vast that every socially advanced country rightly cares for the literacy of its citizens as a basic human right. The flip side of literacy is, as Neil Postman writes in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p. 9):
Thamus warns that the pupils of Theuth will develop an undeserved reputation for wisdom. He means to say that those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence.
Do Thamus’s warnings apply to today’s media and technological skills, and how? Have people who blog or have popular Internet sites become an elite group?
If we look at the 10 most popular blogs on the Internet (according to Technorati), eight are about gadgets, technology or software, and only two about politics and news. Popular blogs fall mainly in one of those categories: people who write about technology, people skilled in SEO techniques who can optimize sites for search engines, commercial blogs of the nanopublishing kind (which often combine the worst of traditional and new media), or traditional media empires which opened an Internet presence. In all of this we also witness new, independent and valuable blogs, but in limited number compared to the millions of blogs available and to the ease with which people can publish online. The agenda is made by a small number of big sites; they have the monopoly of online information in an even less pluralistic way than the traditional media.
A great writer or director would have difficulty in being recognized. A Pasolini or Fellini would be buried under millions of words and silly videos.
Since most of the high-ranking blogs are dedicated to technical articles, gadgets and news about the information technology world, this sets a mental frame which Neil Postman defined as “technopoly.”
Since the advent of letters (and perhaps even before that) every medium or technology has been welcomed in prophetic and cure-all terms. Technologically-oriented people never challenge the goodness of technology, seen at most as “neutral,” depending on the use being made. According to this line of reasoning, when technology causes more problems than solutions, it is because technology is not developed enough, not widespread enough, or not updated. It just has to be more efficient, precise, updated, applied.
No medium or technology has ever been neutral. The impact on our lives and social, psychological and anthropological transformations do not depend on what kind of use is being made of them, but whether they are being used or not. Thamus knew that already and, Marshall McLuhan synthesized it with his famous sentence, “The medium is the message.”
Technology is quite unpredictable and, to know the actual implications in our lives we’d need the wisdom of Thamus. “The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.”
In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money (Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 15).
The Internet was born as a military technology, then it became a medium for freedom of expression, and now is being transformed into a controlling medium as more and more countries and companies are trying to block, control, and spy on users. If the social impacts of technology are often overlooked, the effects on our psyche are neglected much more. Without our conscious attention to what technology does to us, we risk becoming its servomechanisms. But inner attention is exactly what is hard to sustain, given the information overload and the number of different stimulations competing with each other.
Technopoly principles can’t be challenged in our culture: it’s almost a taboo. Technology seems “inevitable,” like taxes and death. People who worry about what human beings will lose through technology are being labeled pessimistic, against progress, unrealistic. It is never considered that those people embrace technology, too, but they do it 360 degrees, instead of looking just at the bright front side.
Every new technology is welcomed as an improvement to life and human beings. This happened with letters, the printing press, radio, TV and, of course, the Internet. We should not forget that Nazism developed in one of the most culturally advanced countries of the times and that despite the ubiquitous availability of technology and information, we know less about the Iraq war than we knew about the Vietnam war. And, of course, wars, famine and inequalities did not cease with the advent of the Internet.
We have advanced in many ways since the times of Thamus, but geeks don’t make a less tiresome company than those mentioned in Phaedrus.