I recently stumbled upon an October 17 2011 jeremiad by Nathan Jurgenson calling for public intellectuals to regain the lost ground in technology writing that has been yielded to business-oriented writers:
Nathan Jurgenson, The Rise of the Internet (Anti)-Intellectual?
My goal in this short piece is to encourage the reader to take a look at these two essays in tandem to suggest a further conversation about the need for public intellectuals, the role of academics in framing theories of new technologies and what the consequences are when we leave this discussion to be dominated by business folks.
Jurgenson’s post uses Larry Sanger’s Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism? and Evengy Morozov’s The Internet Intellectual as a two-lane point of departure, and as a result Jurgenson winds up commenting on Jarvis’ techno-utopian views on the privacy-publicy debate (which Jarvis calls publicness, and Jurgenson calls publicity). That debate is actually a side track to Jurgenson’s actual point:
My problem is really not with Jarvis, but the fact that these “books that should have remained a tweet”, as Morozov states, have dominated the conversation about what the rise of new and social media means. I do not care that these fun little books exist, but that they are dominating the public conversation.
Perhaps the fault lies with the more rigorous intellectuals, both in and outside academia, who have made themselves largely absent from the public conversation about new technologies? Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media? Why is it that Jeff Jarvis is setting the public conversation on publicity, Andrew Keen on amateurism, Tapscott and Williams on prosumption, Siva Vaidhyanathan on the impact of Google on society or Chris Anderson on abundance economies and “free”? To be clear, I think it is good that these folks hit on important topics in a catchy way. But they cannot be the whole picture, nor should they even be at the center. None of them provide a rigorous historical or theoretical treatment of their topics. (We called out Siva Vaidhyanathan on this blog after attending his a-theoretical talk at a public university).
If we can indeed convince more scholars to take on these topics, and there are many who are doing so already, do they have any chance at being public intellectuals? That is, can the ideas be delivered in a way that engages those interested, regardless if they have a degree in any specific field? For intellectuals to be public intellectuals they will need to be as engaging of writers as those authors listed above.
Or maybe the blame for the Sesame Street level books that dominate tech-writing is that publishers simply are not allowing public intellectuals to publish their ideas? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has insights into this area.
In the meantime, I think the two essays linked to above are an important pairing to start a conversation over who gets to frame how new technologies are understood. Will it be a-historical, a-theoretical, non-rigorous business folks or can we inspire a new wave of technology-centered public intellectuals?
I consider myself a public intellectual, I guess. And I agree with a lot of Jurgenson and Sanger are saying (less so Morozov). However, I don’t side with the Nick Carr and Andrew Keen that the web is making us stupid, any more than Tapscott’s argument that Google makes memorization passé, or Shirky’s arguments that books like War and Peace are no longer worth the effort.
But this is just another example of the extremes dominating the discourse, which is a game that the media are happy to play, and sells lots of fun, little books. But then again, didn’t Marshall McLuhan write a lot of fun, little books?
[Returning again to the proximate cause — the privacy-publicy debate — I agree that no contemporary book pulls together all the threads well. All I can do today is offer a sampler of some of my writing on the subject, which I confess has not been smoothed into a single long form piece, although I would like to do so. For those interested, see A Publicy Reader.]