Monday, January 14, 2008

Bauman on Internet

Zygmunt Bauman with Alessandro Lanni (published, in a shortened version, also on Nova 24)

As Castells notices, now on the web there is a battle between big major and milion of consumer-producer. What is your hope about internet? How should the web develop?

A completely random, off-cuff illustration: one of the most prestigious daily, whose editors know well their readers (all of whom, I bet, are avid internet users) and profile the information they supply according to the readers’ interests and expectations, on the page devoted to the last-week internet news refers its readers (under the rubric ‘what we learned on the web this week’) to websites containing information about flexibility of Kermit, how one goes to the lavatory in space, what’s a pretty girl like you doing in a dirty mind like mine, where to hear the new Queen of the Stone Age, or how to win Glastonbury tickets by spotting the bull... It also tells where to find ‘reality TV scoops’, soap spoilers, music videos and gaming gossip’ and information about where to search for ‘perfect hole-in-the-wall’ dining...
The most stressed selling point of ‘new and improved’ computer gear is its raised entertainment value. For once, the writers of advertising copies do not lie. An overwhelming majority of men and women, old and young addicted to the scanning/ zapping of the world wide web do not seek knowledge, but fun. And they get it. The minority that seeks knowledge sooner or later finds out that the profusion of information flooding from the computer screen is an obstacle, not help in satisfying their desire. Finding the few grains of useful (relevant) information in the sky-high heap of chaff exceeds the capacity and the patience of an average human.
More generally: internet does not deal with genuine human problems through their resolution, but through disabling (recasting them as ‘virtual’and so stripping of ‘real world’ relevance). Internet is a warehouse to store information which by the same token (and thanks to the illusion of its constant immediate availability) absolves the user from the cumbersome need of its assimilation, retention and recycling. Internet is a site where one can discharge political passions without engaging in ever less promising political process (for instance, facility with which popular disgust with invasions could be recorded on internet did not stop a single prime-minister from sending troops to Afghanistan or Iraq). Internet is a site on which the ‘self-identification’ game, obligatory yed awfully difficult to play trouble free in real life, can be pursued with few if any obstacles: flattering ‘identities’ may be invented and reinvented at will, often several at the same time, and submitted to the ‘public recognition’ without risk of the bluff being called. Internet with its ‘social software’ allows to establish virtual interhuman bonds to mitigate the pain caused by the absence or oppressiveness of the real-life bonds; in addition, it has the advantage of stripping the desire of ‘belonging’ of its major snag: the difficulty of opting out and breaking the ties in case a particular ‘belonging’ no longer satisfies. Add to that the blogs, fast approaching the total of 100 million, that enable the users to see themselves celebrated things and celebrated people ‘are seen on TV’, that is the way by which reality is obliged to measure its own quality and worthiness... That allow them in such fashion to experience of one’s own importance sorely denied in the hours spent in the office, school or indeed at home...
To cut the long story short, internet is a powerful vehicle of escape from real-life trials and tribulations and a chance to find compensation for defeats and humiliation they cause or are feared yet to cause. It offers substitutes for missing or inadequate skills and resources to deal with the challenges of life. At least this is one of the principal reason of its enormous popularity.

Don't you think that Internet could play a positive role to let the public opinion grew up, the same role have played newspapers in the past?

As newspapers before, so would internet allow public opinion to spread... And also to be manipulated: enlightened, or misled! What makes ‘public opinion’ a value, is its adequacy and relevance to human plight and its challenges (if that happens). But neither the press nor the internet guarantee that adequacy and relevance; attraction, not adequacy pr relevance, are the major factors that decide the size of a newspaper circulation, TV viewing ratings, and numbers of website visitors. Neither the press and the internet just respond to the already existing public interests; they actively create interests – they set the ‘public opinion agenda’: what the viewers/readers should have an opinion about... More often than not, they also form the objects of that opinion, located wholly or in a great part in the ‘virtual space’. More people have opinions (and stronger opinions they have) about the latest candidates for eviction in the Big Brother show, imminent divorce of a celebrity couple, latest twist in the plot of a popular soap drama or sitcom, or a famous athlete caught taking dope, than about apparently highly consequential governmental decisions and successive rounds of power struggles – not to mention the long term trends in economic conditions, state of the climate or the prospects of democracy...
Both the press and the internet operate in a market, vying for attention but not assured that the attention will be given just because they are present. Internet has perhaps better chances to win attention – it operates with images that have wide popular appeal, it can claim, as I mentioned before, high entertainment value (which the press tries to match, yet with mixed success; there is always some distance waiting to be passed...)

Several journalists and scholars mantain that Internet can kill newspapers and with them the critical reasoning attitude they have had since 2 centuries. Are you worried as well?
In a recent article, Juergen Habermas suggests that some important newspapers should be supported with money by the States. This is for the essential role of newspapers in democracy and they're loosing appeal and readers in our era due the new technologies. Are the new technologies a real danger for the quality of our democracy? What do you think of Habermas proposal?

I don’t hold to the (quite widespread) opinion that the future of democracy (and particularly of that ‘hub’ of the democratic process, the ‘agora’, the site where private interest meet public issues and where the translation of private troubles into public tasks and public needs into individual rights and duties is, or at least should be, continually conducted) is technologically determined. Internet is neither a saviour, nor the grave-digger of democracy. ‘Critical reasoning’ may be promoted by internet as much as by the press – the big question, however, how many people, and for what reason, would be inclined to take up tat offer. Whether with the participation of the press or the internet (I predict long life for both – none will kill tthe other, they cooperate splendidly and learn from each other avidly...), the fate of democracy will be decided by the progress of globalization, of individualization, of consumerism (consumer being an enemy of the citizen...)

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, in his The long tail notices the transformation of the model of market Internet implies: from mass market to the niches market, the market where millions of individuals look for singular pieces. What's your opinion about this phenomenon? Can this change of shopping habits modify the consumer's style of life in a much freeer way?

Again, this is not the internet’s doing! With or without the internet, consumer market cannot but promote variety (what you called ‘niches market’). It thrives on variety – uniformity of needs and desires would sound its death-knell. With all the effort of the advertizing to focus attentions and desires of the consumers on specific line of products, marketing is a hazardous undertaking; one can never be sure which product will catch the prospective customers imagination and become a bestseller, and which will prove to be still-born. Supply of consumer goods proceeds through infinite chain of trials and errors (this is why consumer economy cannot but be an economy of excess, and wasteful). ‘Chance’ is what the merchandizers hope for, ‘opportunity’ is, despite all the efforts to the contrary, unpredictable. The most we can say therefore is that there is a sort of resonance between how the websites (and particularly the blogs, the internet replica of the ‘niches’ in the consumer markets) and the consumer goods on the shop shelves struggle for survival and success.
By 31 July 2006 50 million blogs have been counted in the world wide web, and that by latest calculations their numbers since grow on average by 175 thousand a day. On what those blogs inform the ‘internet public’? On everything that may occur to their owner/authors/operators and enter their heads – since there is no knowing what if anything may attract the attention of the rich and mighty buyers. Creating a ‘personal site’, a blog, is just another variety of lottery: you go on, as it were, buying tickets ‘just in case’, with or without illusion that there are rules that enable you (or anyone else for that matter) to predict the winning ones – at least the kind of rules you could learn and remember in order to faithfully, and effectively, observe in your own practice… As Jon Lanchaster, who examined a large number of blogs, found outi, one blogger reported in great detail what had he consumed for breakfast, another described the joys he got from last-evening game, a she-blogger complained of the intimate/ secret shortcomings of her partner, another blog contained an ugly photograph of the author’s pet dog, yet another meditated on discomforts of a policeman’s life and another still collated the tastier bits of sexual exploits of an American in China. An yet one trait could be found shared by all blogs: an unashamed sincerity and straightforwardness in displaying in public the most private experiences and most intimate adventures. Brutally speaking – a burning zeal and evident lack of inhibitions in putting oneself (or at least some parts or aspectsof one’s self) on the market. Perhaps one bit or another would prod interest and inflame imagination of prospective ‘buyers’, perhaps even of some resourceful and powerful buyers, or just of folks ordinary but numerous enough to attract attention of the powerful few, inspire them to make the blogger an offer s/he wouldn’t refuse, and push sky-high her or his market price? Public confession (the juicer the better) of the most personal and meant-to-be-secret affairs is a sort of ‘substitute currency’, even if an inferior one: a currency to which those of us may resort who can’t afford the currencies routinely used by more ‘serious’ (read: more resourceful) investors.

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