via Nathan Jurgenson
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.]
- Mike Bulajewsli, cited by Nathan Jurgenson, Against TED via The New Inquiry
Jurgenson excoriates TED, making me finally feel like I wasn’t the only one:
The way TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity leads to perhaps the most damming argument against the TED epistemology: It necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas. As Paul Currion tweeted, TED seems “unaware of its own ideological bias.” Let’s take one example. Take a wild guess which gender is massively over-represented as TED speakers (answer, via Tom Slee @whimsley). And TEDxWomen stinks of tokenism. Hint: It is better to be more inclusive through and through than to segregate marginalized groups into their own token corners. But the TED style aligns much more easily to articulating ideas that sell than ideas that concern power, domination, and social inequalities. Real cutting-edge ideas also come from the margins. TED’s corporate-establishment voice and style aren’t without their uses, but they are certainly not innovative or cutting edge.
As problematic as TED is in itself, its popularity is more troublesome, coming to dominate the social conversation about what new technologies mean. Not that TED should be barred a role in the conversation. Because of the conference, some complex ideas get wider exposure than they otherwise would (as Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal pointed out in a Tweet). But TED and the larger TED-like world of Silicon Valley corporatism have far too much importance, as Evgeny Morozov points out when criticizing the “Internet guru.”
There are consequences to having this style of discourse dominate how technology’s role in society is understood. Where are the voices critical of corporatism? Where is there space to reach larger publics without having to take on the role of a salesperson, preacher, or self-help guru? Academics, for instance, have largely surrendered the ground of mainstream conversations about technology to business folks in the TED atmosphere.
Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.
Nathan Jurgenson, The IRL Fetish via The New Inquiry
- Nathan Jurgenson, Predictive analytics and information camouflage – The New Inquiry
Jurgenson coins the term ‘information camouflage’: companies that mine data about us, discern a pattern they can exploit, and then conceal that knowledge by randomizing the torrent of ads and promotions they send our way so they can conceal that they are on to us, since if we knew we’d change our mental filters.