John Naughton on the internet

Writer and academic John Naughton. Soucre: Memex 1.1

The Observer has a great feature article by John Naughton on the internet. It shows Naughton’s typically lateral, playful prose style, and also mentions the work of Neil Postman, a writer who Naughton and I appear to both admire:

Many years ago, the cultural critic Neil Postman, one of the 20th century’s most perceptive critics of technology, predicted that the insights of two writers would, like a pair of bookends, bracket our future. Aldous Huxley believed that we would be destroyed by the things we love, while George Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear.

Postman was writing before the internet became such a force in our societies, but I believe he got it right. On the one (Huxleyan) hand, the net has been a profoundly liberating influence in our lives – creating endless opportunities for information, entertainment, pleasure, delight, communication, and apparently effortless consumption, to the point where it has acquired quasi-addictive power, especially over younger generations. One can calibrate the extent of the impact by the growing levels of concern among teachers, governments and politicians. “Is Google making us stupid?” was the title of one of the most cited articles in Atlantic magazine in 2008. It was written by Nicholas Carr, a prominent blogger and author, and raised the question of whether permanent access to networked information (not just Google) is turning us into restless, shallow thinkers with shorter attention spans. (According to Nielsen, a market research firm, the average time spent viewing a web page is 56 seconds.) Other critics are worried that incessant internet use is actually rewiring our brains.

On the other (Orwellian) hand, the internet is the nearest thing to a perfect surveillance machine the world has ever seen. Everything you do on the net is logged – every email you send, every website you visit, every file you download, every search you conduct is recorded and filed somewhere, either on the servers of your internet service provider or of the cloud services that you access. As a tool for a totalitarian government interested in the behaviour, social activities and thought-process of its subjects, the internet is just about perfect.

There’s plenty more to stimulate your thinking in this stylish piece. You can check out Naughton’s blog here.

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