A classic of curmudgeonliness

Newsweek issues what is either a genius act of subtle satire or a classic case of curmudgeonliness and resistance to technology and change in this slideshow alleging to list the things the internet has killed. It’s hardly worth a response except, in its slide-show simplicity, it neatly encapsulates the hymnbook of the old church. Among its obits:

* Facts: Insert the tired, old argument that “anyone can disseminate false information…. These days, politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and bloggers make so many false statements that more than two dozen fact-checking operations have been launched by news organizations or universities this year in an effort to stem the torrent of untruth.” Well, that sounds nice in alliteration. But it’s bullshit. I argue that we as a connected society have, instead, come to expect facts in an instant. Back in the day, when we didn’t know something, we might vow to look it up, but since that entailed driving to a library, the odds what we would fulfill that pledge were nil. Today, when you want to know something, don’t you reflexively reach for the Internets and the Google? When someone spouts bullshit, don’t you often ask them to show you the link, and if they don’t, you discredit them? This worldview comes from the old journalists’ belief that they were the priests anointed as caretakers of facts. I’d say we’re doing much better with facts on our own.

* Reference books: Only a few slides later, Newsweek acknowledges that we don’t really need those tomes. “Encyclopedias fall behind less-reliable [ah, they couldn’t resist] but more timely competitors, like Wikipedia. And why carry around a dictionary, thesaurus, or atlas when you have Internet access and Google?” Why, indeed?

* Privacy: Oh, crap. I’d argue about this one but it would take time away from writing a book on the topic. I talked to new-Newsweek head Tina Brown about the topic here.

* Letter writing: OK, so what? We now have more means to stay in touch with more people in less time than at any time in history. I’m involved in projects on the future of the Post Office and I say there that the first-class letter will be extinct. And now we have blogs, which are often letters to the world. How wonderful.

* Concentration: I forgot what I was going to say about that.

* The yearbook: That’s just flat-out wrong. My kids have yearbooks. School papers are dying but that’s not because of the internet; it’s because of budget cuts.

* The peep show: That would be more accurate if they said the porno store. Drive around Florida or Vegas or even Manhattan and you’ll find plenty of strip clubs. Just this morning, driving in, I saw a new billboard for Hustler’s. (A true case of mis-targeted advertising, I’ll add.)

They also declared toast video stores, vacations, the 9-to-5 job, Polaroids and other film, the telephone, book, the CD, and….

* Civility: Oh, fuck me.

Now, Newsweek, let me suggest what the internet really kills:

* Government secrecy.

* Opaque markets.

* Central control.

* Power elites.

* Borders.

* Inefficiency.

* Ignorance.

* Newsweek.

  • Chris

    As with the previous post, I find much to agree with here; in fact, I agree with the majority of it. But I want to focus on my questions and disagreements…

    The two areas that I’m very curious to hear your extended thoughts on, Jeff, are the two areas that you deal with the least: concentration and civility. On the former, you will occasionally refer to Carr et al., but without (in the stuff I’ve seen) engaging their positions. I started using email and Gopher as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1992, and as the web (and my use of it) developed and proliferated, I’ve *seen* how my ability to read deeply and with great focus has declined. I think the tradeoffs are worth discussing, and I’d love to hear more about it from you or others who disagree with Carr (I know you’re already writing one book, not another! :-).

    Civility: I disagree with Newsweek that the web has killed civility… that’d imply that we had some great quantity of the stuff prior to it. But it does seem that the web and its proliferation of written interaction in particular has given us more opportunities to lash out at those we disagree with without engaging them. And many of us — me included — use the hiddenness of web communication to do just that.

    Inefficiency. Yes, the web does lessen it. But with E.F. Schumacher, I think a little inefficiency can be a good thing.

    Ignorance. Well, yes and no. We certainly have more and quicker access to knowledge. But we still need to have to *want* to find it, and particularly when it comes to the “unknown unknowns”, the web doesn’t seem to help us anymore than the old way did.

    Some thoughts. Again, though… great post.

  • ewan

    Bang on. Love it.

  • Scotty

    Guess you haven’t gotten bitten by the genealogy bug.

    I LOVE reading the hundred year old letters of my great grand parents. I wonder what my great grand kids will have of me/us to read …

    • geni.com + a desktop scanner, and my brothers great grandchildren have access to my grandmothers typewritten memories, and so will my wife’s sisters eat grandchildren
      What if geni.com goes away? gedcom file is on CD, google docs and dropbox.

  • Scott

    How about local retail?

    The Internet is killing off many of the local businesses that managed to survive big box stores.

    No doubt consumers are getting better access to products at better prices, which is good. But there’s clearly a cost to the vitality of cities.

    Walk around any city other than New York, Chicago and a few other large places and there’s just not a lot of life on the street. Lack of local retail is a major reason. I used to love walking to the book store, record store, clothing boutiques, etc., near my home, but now many of those are gone, and the ones that remain are in bad shape.

    It’s a case where killing inefficiency robs of of something, too.

    • TomR


      The internet doesn’t kill local retail, but not responding to competition from the internet does. There are a lot of ways that local retail businesses can be vital and necessary destinations for their area. They still have to compete with Amazon, iTunes, Zappos, and the rest of the world on the ‘net.

      BTW, when was the last time you bought music from a record store? ;-)

  • Jen

    It is not the internet that killed civility. It is the internet that killed fear of repercussions from saying mean things to the wrong people. Anonymity is a key feature (you can make the case that it is being eroded) of the internet. Faceless crowds have nothing to fear from being rude. However, I have to endure my mother’s and other friends and family members’ scorn if I am rude.

    So, more clearly, the anonymity of the internet has killed the last vestiges of social niceties (call it civility if you want).

    • Chris

      That’s a bad thing though, isn’t it Jen? In a heterogeneous society such as our own, we need a mechanism which enables us to see that those who disagree with us aren’t jerks we can and should ignore, but rather are well-meaning, generally intelligent people as well. Otherwise, we’ll see continued ossification into ideologies without any real conversation.

      Civility provided that mechanism, even if it was just a veneer. Without it, we might easily face interminable demonization and culture wars.

    • Anna

      “Killed the last vestiges of social niceties…” Good heavens! Please don’t tell me that you’ve started being rude to your mother! No? Well, then, at least you still have social niceties. Wait, I’m not rude either! That makes two of us! Maybe there are more–if only we could track them down, perhaps civilization could be saved :)

      OK, apologies if this message comes across as rude. My point is that it’s helpful to refrain from gross exaggeration even when we have strong concerns. Certainly some have used the anonymity of online to behave badly. However, in my experience the Internet has added to civil behavior as much or more than it has taken away. For example, Twitter is used by many to extend their professional networks, and people who meet only on Twitter for this purpose are exceedingly polite and generous with each other. I have personally experienced interest, support, and kindness from complete strangers. In addition, we are now all better enabled to connect with others from different backgrounds and cultures to learn from each other. That in itself can be a huge lesson in civility if we let it.

  • I just encountered a great example of how wrong Newsweek (and other complainers) is, at least in regards to facts and reference books. The OED just published a revised entry, “twice the size of the original,” for the word “information.” Fifteen years ago I gave my wife the 20 printed volumes of the OED 2nd edition, published in 1989, for which I paid $1000. Consulting it frequently, I have always been convinced that the first documented meaning of the word “information” was “formation of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching,” which the OED listed as its #1 explanation/usage, and the oldest (citation from Chaucer, dated c1386). At #4, it offered “the action of informing against, charging, or accusing” with the first citation from 1480. The revised entry reverses this order, putting “the action of imparting accusatory or incriminatory intelligence against a person” as #1 (with a 1386 citation from the Rolls of Parliament) and “The shaping of the mind or character; communication of instructive knowledge; education, training” as #4, with the first citation from 1387. The Chaucer citation is now dated c1405. The first documented appearance of the meaning of information as “news” (this one’s for you, Jeff), is now dated 1390, as opposed to 1450 in the 1989 edition. And so on…. All of this great updating of reference information and facts is now published free of charge by the OED on the Web (and you can get everything else in the OED for free provided your local public or university library has bought a subscription). Not only we are doing much better with facts on our own, we now have greater and better access to accurate information and the latest and greatest of any kind of research.

  • The Post Office… good riddance! I have absolutely no use for any mail, it all ends up in the recycling bin. Let’s finally get rid of the USPS. If someone wants to send me a Christmas card, let them pay UPS or Fedex to deliver it.

    • Hold your horses. Will UPS of Fedex deliver anywhere? Not everyone is in a location where those services will deliver at a reasonable cost.
      Once Internet access is ubiquitous, digital signatures are standardized and delivery of goods to any location guaranteed, only then will government owned or regulated be disbanded.

      • Question is whether it’s more efficient for government to maintain the infrastructure to assure universal service (delivery to any address at the same price) or whether it would be less expensive, come this shift, for government to subsidize private carriers (as we subsidize certain phone provisions today with fees on all our phone bills).

      • One of the reasons internet is killing borders like Jeff said, is the fact that you can really live anywhere in the world and get the same service.

        Maybe in US and some other countries FedEx, UPS and etc are delivering everywhere, but there’s many countries that local post offices are actually taking care of their deliveries.

        At least in Finland, national post office has noticed the benefits of internet and they are providing services like that they’ll scan all of your post and deliver those right away electorinically and then twice a week you get the same to your post box.

        Great post, great thoughts, thanks.

      • Not even Google will deliver anywhere. So I’d say that border’s are nice and safe. For instance, a short list of personally experienced fails:
        No Chrome to phone or Google Reader on my N1, based ony ma country.

        Amazon will not allow me to buy an mp3. Nor will it ship a cardboard board game.

        No US retailer will send a PSP game/DVD/Blue-ray or any gadget.

        Chrome store is, “surprisingly” walled off for me as a developer.

        Windows 7 Phone, yes, you can guess it by now, unusable without a hack.

        The only thing I can reliably get across the borders are books.

  • Stan Hogan

    The internet kills ignorance? It gives it a platform.

    • Andy Freeman

      > The internet kills ignorance? It gives it a platform.

      Ignorance has always had a platform, several in fact.

      The only thing different about the internet is that the rabble and “their betters” are on the same footing.

  • Rick

    Jeff’s list of things the internet kills (except perhaps Newsweek) represents the control points of those in power. As such those points of control will not go softly into the night. The struggle for administrative & content control of the internet has just begun – viz COICA (http://www.eff.org/coica), the great firewall of China, blocking and lawsuits vs. Google in Europe. The internet is surprisingly easy to control – viz. Wikileaks struggle to be available when refused hosting, or pay its bills when certain large banks dislike the potential airing of their dirty laundry and thus tell the credit card oligopoly to cut off the flow of payments.

  • Lawrence Butts

    Keep it up Jeff – you say it like is and make us laugh!

  • The internet didn’t kill anything, including Newsweek. We just like to blame it on something other than ourselves or incompetence.

    All the things that Mr. Jarvis predicts as being killed by the internet, will be around for a long time, except for Newsweek. Just because we have ideal tools doesn’t mean people will use them.

    • True enough. But we can use them. I am more of an optimist, it would appear, than you.

  • A. Nonymous

    >>>Now, Newsweek, let me suggest what the internet really kills:
    * Power elites.

    Isn’t that what you talk about at Davos every year?

  • Jason

    You misspelled Polaroid

  • Pingback: Against the Wind » Blog Archive()

  • Ben

    The Internet killing these things seems to me to be wishful thinking:

    * Government secrecy.

    * Opaque markets.

    * Central control.

    * Power elites.

    I don’t know that Wikileaks dismantles government secrecy so much as it gives authoritarian governments the ability to say “See, we were right to clamp down on dissidents.”

    Markets will always be opaque, otherwise you will be suspected of insider trading. Just because all the information is out there doesn’t mean that everyone has equal access to it. Nor does it mean that people are looking for the right information at the right time.

    I don’t see how central control is made difficult. Any large corporation has a central website to give its customers and potential customers a similar experience. There seems to be a lot of central control on the web.

    The Internet also makes people who live in countries, and areas of countries, with high broadband penetration rates much more powerful than those who live in remote villages. The Internet would not exist without the infrastructure supporting it, and those who have the best infrastructure could easily be said to form an elite.

    While it would be nice if the Internet could change all these things, I’m not sure that it does.

  • A. Nonymous

    I’m curious: Is there any evidence that the average American is better informed about current events than he was two decades ago? All the research on the subject says the opposite.

    Similarly, why do you believe the Internet does away with “power elites” – that great sixties phrase – when wealth in the U.S. hasn’t been more concentrated since the twenties?

    I don’t know for sure that you’re wrong. I’m just curious how you deal with the research that says the opposite. Do you have any hard data on how the Internet affects knowledge or income equality? Or are you just going on gut instinct?

  • Fake name so I have no real accountability

    Dear Mr. Jarvis,

    So am I to assume you agree with Newsweek’s contentions that the Internet killed the 9-to-5 work day, the video store, the CD, the telephone book, vacations and Polaroids and other film? Also, while your joke about concentration was really funny, you didn’t actually address the topic. You actually agreed that the Internet killed letter writing and reference books.

    That’s nine slides out of a 15-slide slideshow that you either agreed with or sidestepped. That’s fine, but I just don’t see how pointing out no one uses phone books and film “neatly encapsulates the hymnbook of the old church.”

    Also, it’s sort of both funny and sad that your response to Newsweek’s claim that the Internet killed facts was based on an argument. They cited real-life examples of the Internet being used to spread lies, you said “This worldview comes from the old journalists’ belief that they were the priests anointed as caretakers of facts.”

    Why do you say that? No seriously, prove it to me. You didn’t have any facts in your blog post about the Internet killing facts. And what’s worse, you don’t see anything wrong with that.

    One part of that I definitely agree with is your assertion that “When someone spouts bullshit, don’t you often ask them to show you the link, and if they don’t, you discredit them?”

    I think you’re spouting bullshit. Show me the link.

    As for your points about what you think the Internet did kill, I agree with many of them. But I’m confused by the 100-percent either/or you’ve created. Why can’t the Internet have killed civility AND power elites. Or the video store AND government secrecy.

    You’re a very funny man. I salute your rhetoric if not your logic. I know I won’t convince you to take anything less than the dogmatic stance that sells your books, but I’m glad I tried.

    • oh, my

      • Fake name so I have no real accountability

        OK. Sort of wondering why you bothered to type that rather than say it out loud. Guess I should be glad I got some response. Most of the other people who raised points contrary to yours didn’t get any response.

        You responded but didn’t say anything. I wouldn’t really know how to react here if your own words hadn’t given me the template.

        “When someone spouts bullshit, don’t you often ask them to show you the link, and if they don’t, you discredit them?”

  • apologies if this message comes across as rude. My point is that it’s helpful to refrain from gross exaggeration even when we have strong concerns. Certainly some have used the anonymity of online to behave badly. However, in my experience the Internet has added to civil behavior as much or more than it has taken away