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The World Is Going Digital -- Are We Doomed?

Two new books, about the effects and implications of the Internet, suggest a scary digital dystopia awaits us.

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Like Mele, media reformer and scholar Robert W. McChesney fears for the fate of our democracy at the hands of the digital revolution. His new book Digital Disconnect also offers some helpful history and a clear, useful analysis, but it too suffers from large claims and sweeping arguments in service of a thesis.

McChesney’s concern, per his subtitle, is that “Capitalism is turning the Internet against democracy,” and that its “colonization of cyberspace has…made the Internet a disturbingly antidemocratic force.” He splits the world of Internet writers into two opposing camps: celebrants and skeptics, bringing to mind earlier divisions between supposed “cyber-utopians” and such self-satisfied “cyber-realists” as Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell – who like to deride their opponents as “ digital evangelists.”

But McChesney finds both camps wanting. Instead, he proposes “to take the best of what each side has to offer and make it part of a far more serious discussion” of democracy and its discontents, which he sees as having been so undermined that “one could logically wish the computer had never been invented.”

To McChesney, the celebrants, (which include the likes of Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and, full disclosure, myself) naively see the Internet as a force for democracy and good worldwide, ending monopolies of information and centralized control over communication.” He even quotes from my book Friends, Followers and the Future: “Watch out, Big Media, Big Business, and Big Government – here come our friends, our followers, and out future!” and adds, per J eff Jarvis, “Resistance is futile.”

Other so-called skeptics, including the likes of Jaron Lanier and Eli Pariser, have previously pointed out that technology is as capable of being destructive as it is progressive. Echoing the concerns of Nicco Mele, McChesney approvingly quotes one dystopian thinker, Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End, as saying “many of us…have engaged in a massive, collective, consensual hallucination about the power of technology” and another, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, as fearing “something very important to being human is being lost.”

Both celebrants and skeptics share “a single, deep and often fatal flaw,” McChesney believes — “ignorance about capitalism and how it works.” The naive and ignorant celebrants, he says, “often believe digital technology has superpowers over political economy.” But anyone who wants “to make big claims about how the digital revolution is fundamentally invigorating democracy…must start from a stronger foundation.” His proposed solution? The application of “political economy – an understanding of capitalism and its relationship to democracy,” which McChesney says, “should be the “organizing principle for evaluating the digital revolution.”

Like Mele, McChesney spends a good deal of time analyzing the interplay between journalism and democracy. He says that “it is of singular importance in democracies.” And like Mele, he worries about the collapse of institutions and the effect on journalism and democracy. But neither is an experienced journalist, and both their analyses suffer from a lack of actual practice in that field.

Mele, for example, extols journalism’s “historic role as guardian of the public interest” and says “we need to keep the iron core of journalism vibrant and strong.” McChesney, for his part, cites the “glory days of Sixties journalism…the high-water mark for professional journalism” and summarily dismisses most other analyses as “vacuous because of the lack of a political economic critique of journalism.”

But both authors fail to offer a truly professional critique of journalism. Each bemoans the passing of the supposed “glory days” of investigative reporting, and is too believing in and reliant on a remembrance of a halcyon era in media and political history that simply never existed. In my experience, which includes several stints as an investigative reporter, such journalistic activity was never popular or much supported by bosses or owners, since it is by definition costly, time-consuming and uncertain in outcome, with no guarantee of success. And even if you do deliver the goods as an investigative journalist, the odds remain high that your reporting will inevitably alienate someone powerful, such as advertisers or the politically well-connected. So no, investigative reporting was never a top priority for journalistic institutions in my experience – even back in the so-called glory days!

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