Culture After Google

The Shallows

Emilie Bickerton in The New Left Review:

Literature on the social impact of the internet has always struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace set by its subject. First-generation thinking about the net took form in the early 1990s, when usage was rapidly expanding with the dissemination of early browsers; it grew out of a pre-existing thread of technology advocacy that ran back to 60s counter-cultural consumerism. Wired magazine, founded in 1993, was its chief vehicle; key figures included tech-enthusiasts Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Reingold, with their ‘patron saint’ Marshall McLuhan. This euphoric perspective dominated throughout the ‘new economy’ boom: the internet was changing everything, and for the better, heralding a new age of freedom, democracy, self-expression and economic growth. Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, delivered from Davos, set the tone: ‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.’ Pitted against this, there had long existed a minor current of critical left writing, also running back to at least the early 70s; this included ‘left McLuhanite’ figures such as The Nation’s Neil Postman. More overtly political, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s classic 1995 essay, ‘The Californian Ideology’, skewered Wired in its early days, while on the ‘Nettime’ listserv and in the pages of Mute magazine, writers such as Geert Lovink attempted to forge a real ‘net criticism’. But these voices were mostly confined to the dissident margins.

With the 2000–01 crash there came something of a discursive shake-out. It was in the early post-crash years that Nicholas Carr’s Does IT Matter? (2004) was published, puncturing ‘new economy’ hype. But with the Greenspan bubble and massive state-intelligence funding after 9.11, American tech was soon on its feet again. Tim O’Reilly’s coining of the ‘Web 2.0’ buzzword in 2004 captured the returning optimism. The blog craze, Wikipedia and the first wave of social media all came into play during these years, and it was now that the landscape of tech giants was consolidated: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. The technology discourses of this phase echoed the developing shape of the Web: with ‘open source’ (another O’Reilly buzzword) and Wikipedia, it was argued that undefined crowds could be superior producers of content and code than named (or paid) individuals.

When a second, much deeper crisis erupted in 2008, American tech was one of the few sectors to remain relatively unscathed, already moving into new lines of production: smartphones, tablets, e-readers. The uptake of these devices brought a qualitative expansion of internet use, blurring the boundary between everyday life and a ‘cyberspace’ that had hitherto been conceptualized as a separate sphere. Suddenly it was evident that all the talk of the internet’s capacity to instigate far-reaching social change was no mere talk. It was in these years that a set of more pessimistic and critical voices started to come to the fore, worrying about the dangers of the Web’s expanding use[.]

More here.