The World Wide Web of People at My Disposal

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The web held such promise. Here’s Yochai Benkler in his influential 2006 book The Wealth of Networks:

[the web] holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture;

But as Nicholas Carr has pointed out, the result often looks very different from what we were expecting:

The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterized by frenetic production and consumption — smartphones have made media machines of us all — but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency. That’s not to deny the benefits of having easy access to an efficient, universal system of information exchange… it is to deny the assumption that the system, in order to provide its benefits, had to take its present form.

Remember what the promise of the web was? It was the opportunity to treasure diversity of opinion through individual voices with different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge. It was going to save us from false certainty and narrow-mindedness. It was going to make us constantly visible of our own biases and blind spots. It was going to be a forum for open dialogue.

And yet where we have arrived generally feels more like two kids pointing fingers at each other and saying “no, you’re a poo-poo head”. And yet, I think the great strength of the web was the ability to prove that we’re all wrong. We’re fallible. Human. It showed us the complexity and diversity of the world and the limitations of our own understanding. You thought you were a smart kid growing up? Generally smarter than most people in your class? On the internet, there’s always someone smarter than you.

We seem to have this achilles heal in the online world, where we look through the lens of our time and culture (how can you do anything but that?) but then we take it a step too far in announcing our perspective as normative for everyone everywhere. After all, it is the world-wide-web. The web was supposed to open our perspective; however, instead of listening to the world we seem to talk at the world and expect them to listen. Rather than the web being the perspectives of the world in my living room it became a platform to put my perspectives in the living room of the world.

Is it possible to find community online where convictions can be explored and not merely expounded? I’m sure these communities are out there, but it’s a shame they’re so obscure.