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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the December 15, 2010 Providence Journal.
Long before I took myself off Facebook, I doubted the “revolutionary” potential of the Internet.
In part my viewpoint was a result of the annoying smugness of the pre-crash dot.com “entrepreneurs,” who always seemed to be murmuring initial public offering nonsense at a table next to mine in tony restaurants.
What’s more, I never found e-mail exciting, since I’d already experienced a surfeit of computer messaging while working on the foreign desk of United Press International in 1982. But mostly my skepticism stemmed from the suspicion that the World Wide Web wasn’t, in essence, much more than a gigantic, unthinking Xerox machine (albeit with inhuman “memory”), and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and to the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.
More recently, I’ve come to realize that the Internet hucksters are first cousins— in both their ideology and their sales tactics— to the present-day promoters of “free trade.” The Internet “ideal” of universal, democratic and free access to “content” unhindered by borders or fees corresponds with David Ricardo’s and Richard Cobden’s notions about a tariff-free world in which all people produce what they’re best at and don’t want to start wars because they’re justly compensated for their labor.
No such world can exist, and never will, but on this preposterous philosophical platform are built such “free-trade” pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement that drive manufacturing to the cheapest labor locales along the Mexican side of the border, where no one is justly compensated, or to even cheaper China, where labor racketeering (a conspiracy to fix the price of labor) occurs on a grand scale.
Similarly, writers and editors, as Harper’s Magazine’s Thomas Frank points out, are being driven into penury by Internet wages — in most cases, no wages. But, as Lawrence Summers once said to me about Mexicans, Americans are free to “choose” to work in “content mills,” the editorial equivalent of Mexican maquilladoras, where they can earn $15 for writing 300 words. The result of this “free choice” is what Leon Wieseltier calls the “proletarianization of the writer,” although what he describes as their “indecent poverty” has yet to turn them radical.
I have been radicalized, both as a publisher and a writer, and have instituted a “protectionist” policy in regard to the Internet and its free-content salesmen. In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising “model” has failed and readers are going to have to pay (in opposition to Google’s bias against paid sites) if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad or a sex act.
I am even more offended, however, by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional affect. Partisans of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But most of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.
Can it be seriously argued that popular government in America — with our two-party oligarchy, 90 percent-plus re-election rates, and money-laundered politics — has progressed in the age of the Internet? Has WikiLeaks’s disclosure of Afghanistan documents moved us any closer to withdrawal from that country? Would America be any less democratic without e-mail?
Somehow, the passion that drives successful political crusades is attenuated when it’s reflected on the computer screen. All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste. This is time that obviously could be better spent talking to a friend or a child, reading a good book, or marching in a political demonstration.
The writer Frederic Morton notes that “you can’t download a hug,” but Mark Zuckerberg apparently thinks that you can. To see how empty is the “social” promise of Facebook, read Zuckerberg’s recent interview in the Financial Times, which is all about making more money: “Every industry is going to be rethought in a social way — you can remake whole industries.”
Meet the new boss dressed in a T-shirt — the hierarchy and the “business model” are as top-down as they ever were — and just because he’s 26 doesn’t make “Zuck” any more attractive than the old boss. Now, even the World Wide Web’s founder, Tim Berners-Lee, protests in Scientific American that the “egalitarian principles” of the Web are being “chipped away” by Apple, Facebook and Google.
Among the most insistent Internet salesmen in my world is Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. In keeping with the “democratic” Web, he promotes so-called “public journalism,” which some editors take to mean journalism ordered up by readers instead of assigned by editors.
Tom Frank gently mocks Rosen in this month’s Harper’s Magazine for being too easy on Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of a content mill called Demand Media. Rosen objected — in his blog. But what really made him mad was that “Frank could only write that because he is not writing on the Web. . . . Were he writing on the Web he would have to link to my interview” with Rosenblatt, which would show how “misleading” were Frank’s “characterizations.”
Since we at Harper’s are not free content/free traders (you have to pay to read the magazine online), we asked Rosen to write a letter to the editor. His reply: “Harper’s has decided it doesn’t want to be part of the Web, and for that reason I don’t want to be part of Harper’s. Which is sad, all around.” Now, there’s the democratic spirit at work.
More from John R. MacArthur:
Publisher's Note — November 14, 2013, 5:39 pm
Why more attention should have been paid to terminal tapping at Bloomberg News
Publisher's Note — October 17, 2013, 1:05 pm
Why are opponents of Bill de Blasio invoking the David Dinkins era?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011 for “furtive movements”:
The faces of Lego people were growing angrier.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature