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.