The culture war heats up

history is filled with culture warsWhen I first began writing this blog, I had just come out of a serious period of studying people and culture. I’m not sure if I have “eyes to see” or whether I’m nutty as a fruitcake, but the rising postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christian culture is very clear to me. This blog is called “The Pomo Blog” for a reason, and while some observers mistakenly think I’m into philosophical postmodernism, I’m really more a pragmatist who writes about culture and how it is changing. Just as the culture shifted after the invention of movable type from one that was faith-based to one planted in logic and reason, so now is our modern culture shifting to one that is vastly more participatory.

This, of course, troubles the status quo, which is firmly rooted in the modern culture it created and maintains, and one guy who is afraid more than most is Andrew Keen. His paranoid message makes for good copy, although it’s based more in fear than fact. In a recent panel discussion (he’s the natural counterpoint to the optimism of the Web) at the National Press Club, Keen pointed out that the Web is a threat to democracy. I’ve deconstructed Keen in the past and have no wish to do so again, because most of what he says is pretty obvious, although he speaks from the culture that is being disrupted. Here are a few thoughts from Keen as published by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community…

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise…

What I most fear about the Internet… is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of (Wikipedia’s) Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy…

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes an author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

The fear is palpable. Andrew Keen speaks on behalf of the modernist culture in the way the high priests in Rome spoke on behalf of the culture of its day when Gutenberg came along and had the temerity to publish a Bible without their blessing. The same kinds of doom and gloom messages followed, until the new culture was fully in place. So, like Clay Shirky, I think we should be looking at the decades that followed the printing press for clues as to what comes next for us, for surely the ideological Web is moving us into a whole new culture in the West. It wasn’t pretty then, and it won’t be pretty now, but here’s the thing that Keen and many, many fearful others don’t get. Modernism has failed. Utterly. Oh it has given us many fine inventions, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen; our economy is a zombie (as Umair Haque so brilliantly puts it); and crisis after crisis challenge logic’s ability to find any real “fixes. The mental state of the culture is in shambles, with the priesthood of mental health claiming disorder upon disorder and the pharmaceutical industry waiting to help. Take an honest look around, folks. Can you honestly state that things are just fine and that the culture is worth preserving?

Haque, meanwhile, has written a “betterness manifesto” that surely makes the modernists cringe, because, well, it’s so touchy-feely, the stuff logic and reason are completely incapable of grasping. Surely chaos is at the door. But is it really?

In OMMA Magazine this month, John Capone writes of a culture clash between Apple and Google, and I think he nails perfectly that Steve Jobs represents the top-down, command-and-control order of modernism while Google represents the participatory core of postmodernism. It’s a great read, but what he writes about Google interests me most:

The public face of the company is nearly socialistic. For instance, it’s almost impossible to tell from titles alone, except at all but the highest levels, what the internal hierarchy of the company is. Googlers beat the open source drum with a consistency that can be numbing. When asked for comment on the mobile strategies of the two companies a Google rep said only, “We believe that open is the only way for the Web to have the broadest impact for the most people. We’re technology optimists who trust that open benefits everyone, and we will fight to promote it every chance we get.”

I think Capone is speaking of the broader culture in describing what both Apple and Google represent, so I expect to see attacks on Google to accelerate as the status quo figures out that any company that encourages the revolution is not its friend. This is a culture war worth watching, which I’ll admit is hard to do when you’re smack dab in the middle of it.

Are we going to experience pain in the process. Yes, I think, and a lot. My feet are firmly planted on the side of the participatory culture, however, because I want a better future for my children and especially theirs.

The problematic part of modernism — better yet, colonialism — is that it requires an ignorant mass that can be manipulated for the gain of the élite. Where that ignorance is overcome, the top finds an unwilling bottom, and that’s why every institution of the modern culture is or will be shortly under attack from beneath.

It simply cannot end well for the status quo, regardless of the number of lawyers who speak on its behalf.


  1. Ron Stitt says

    I don’t think Keen actually has a very broad constituency (although since the President of the U.S. has recently expressed that he is part of it, maybe I should worry more). But I just don’t see that much resistance to the internet evolution, or revolution, as being likely, so he’s kind of a straw man. In any event, the debate is pretty much over already, we just haven’t fully realized it yet. On a more prosaic level, while we get very excited about everything Apple does, if it’s in a contest with Google, that’s already lost. Not saying Google is the ultimate winner…they’re vulnerable too, to Facebook or other innovators that loom in the future. But not Steve Jobs.

    Not sure this all leads where you think it does though. Sure, the gap between haves and have-nots has grown (probably debatable — but ultimately pointless to do so. Just will point out thought that “Have-nots” have a lot more than they used to. Would have been “haves” 100 years ago. Official definition of “poverty” now includes people who live in their own home, with a car, TV, air conditioning, plenty to eat.). Real point is…when do we realize, as people, that materialism sucks. We have to address this philosphically first, not politically). Our popular culture is a wasteland, and we do have a lot of woefully undereducated people, so it’s not going to be easy. One thing I do appreciate about this post-modern chaos however is actually (irony) an endangered holdover from the old, modern era…the options, and choices, we still have as individuals, even if most of the time we’re in “zombie-mode”. You can argue about corporate interests driving agendas, controlling media (how are they doing that in the internet/Google era anyway? j Or is that another straw man?). I’m more worried about self-appointed, “intellectual” elites deciding they need to take deliberate, conscious control of the situation for the “social good”.

    Thanks for posting this. I don’t always agree with you (although when it comes to pragmatic ideas for media operators, I usually do). But I always enjoying reading your thoughts.

  2. Ron, I surely appreciate you and the thoughtful comments you leave. My purpose in writing isn’t to change anybody’s way of thinking; it’s to challenge my own assumptions. You’d be amazed how many times I start to write something and then toss it, because, well, it’s just crap or sloppy thinking.

    Elitism is a holdover from colonialism, the ultimate top-down culture-changer (“Come over to our way of thinking, savages, or we’ll kill you!”). Colonialism is rampant in our culture and dominates institutional life especially. What comes next? I’m not sure, but people with like mind or motivation can make great personal progress without a “leader,” per se. Consider the common cause of, say, Alcoholics Anonymous. I agree with you completely that the intellectuals (the penultimate fruit of modernism) deciding they need to do something is worrisome.

    I think the idea that even the poor have more these days is a meaningless apples and oranges illusion. The borrower is the servant of the lender, and so it goes.

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