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Vices of the Virtual

In the Fall 2008 issue of the journal n+1 (number seven), Benjamin Kunkel has an essay about how the internet has affected public life ("Drawn and Quartered on the Internet"). Thisis a topic thati nspires a lot of vague and inconclusive apprehension but not much real analysis. Techno-pessimists brace themselves for the death of reading, while techno-optimists promise that the internet will make reading and writing and everything else more democratic. Neither side says much about what it's actually like to be online—about the real texture of an experience that is rapidly changing our culture. Kunkel has spent enough time with the internet to be intelligently critical of its strange moral economy.

[M]oral realism (whatever that might turn outto be) would need patience and some tolerance for subtlety to flourish, and thesedelicate moods are exactly those the techno-determinists tell us the internet cannever support. They may be right.Though one can spendhours online, the sensation of being there is usually one ofimpatience.... The immediate gratification to lust and curiosity offered respectively by online porn and online encyclopedias is easy enough to understand. But what in us is gratified by the punitive hypocrisies of politics and commentary? Why, when we are online, do we so oftenprefer expressing or seeing expressed contempt (and sometimes adulation) instead of moral judgments of more complexity, not to say reality? It must owe something to the immediacy of these varieties of moralistic satisfaction. It's a pleasure to hate and to adore, to insultor to flatter, and a pleasure you can come by fairly quickly. The satisfactions of respect, understanding, and explication need more time.

It is also gratifying to feel as if you know what you think and how you feel, particularly when you don't. The internet has this twin character: its contents are overwhelming and disorienting, and its denizens regularly affect a furious certainty as to their ideas and opinions. So the vastness of the internet, as of our world and culture generally, and the speed at which new "content" pops up -- the freshly discovered curiosity -- promotes a self-protective attitude in which everything is known and judged in advance. Internet-led culture has encouraged us to be impatient with efforts at thinking out loud; the preferred style is a certain glib knowingness. It's worth asking whether the attraction of glibness -- glib contempt especially -- doesn't consist in being able to apply a steady and reliable attitude to an online public world otherwise overmastering in its breadth, diversity, and novelty, a world of which we have, by now, a lot of experience, but still very little knowledge.

A new medium brings, if not a new message, then at least new modes of thought and expression. And the advantages of a new medium usually become evident before its disadvantages do. Speed and convenience appeal to everyone (though more to some than to others), but what kinds of conversations—and what kinds of arguments—are being replaced by the digs of an often anonymous blog commentariat? It is possible to argue that the internet merely provides a new way to have the same old conversations. Possible; but also, I think, too easy. Material culture matters, even a material culture of digital technologies designed to help us escape material constraints. Emails and letters, for example, are not just different means of correspondence; they are different forms of correspondence, as any twenty-first-century reader of a collection of twentieth-century letters will quickly discover. There are no doubt real gains to culture because of the internet, and Kunkel mentions a fewof them. But what are the losses? And can any discipline short of an Amish-like abstinence restore what we're losing?You can find the rest of the Kunkel essay at a good bookstore, but not (of course) online.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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Is Mr. Kunkel confusing blogs with the whole of the Internet? Is he overlooking the different kinds of reading - that for pleasure and instruction, and that simply for information - telephone numbers, formulas, dictionaries?

Mr. Austin,Kunkel's essay covers the internet in general. He examines it under four of its most conspicuous aspects: commentary (blogs and blog comments), politics (the propaganda of campaign websites and the online coverage of politics), information (telephone numbers, formulas, dictionaries, Wikipedia), and pornography. His analysis of each of these, and of their relationships to one another, is careful, nuanced, and hard to summarize. But he arrives at an interesting paradox: Both internet information and internet pornography present themselves as essentially amoral, while internet politics and commentary are moralistic in a way that is finally immoral. Oddly, he does not have much to say about online commerce.

"It is also gratifying to feel as if you know what you think and how you feel, particularly when you dont. The Internet has this twin character: its contents are overwhelming and disorienting, and its denizens regularly affect a furious certainty as to their ideas and opinions." Matthew, how does this differ from talk radio where the worst of people comes out or in a barroom where everyone unlike us is lampooned and the sidekick who is not present today is doubly insulted?The Internet certainly reveals the foibles of human nature. It does not appear that Kunkel proves that the Internet changes anyone. The resources do allow one to exploit one's talents or fantasies without loudly proclaiming and visiting in the public square. Sounds like Kunkel might be fishing for straws or reflecting an experience that is not peculiar to the Internet.

Bill,Obviously not all the problems Kunkel addresses here are unique to the internet. As you say, there are bullies and hypocrites elsewhere: in the bar, on the radio, and in all the other media. He does argue -- persuasively, I think -- that there are features of the internet that aggravate the common foibles you mention. Above all, its anonymity. We write strange things to and about people we're confident we'll never meet.The point of this post was to recommend the Kunkel essay and to invite people to discuss a few of the questions it raises. The point was not to begin a debate about the merits of the whole piece on the basis of a two-paragraph quotation. Of course, I can't force you to pay eleven bucks for a copy of n+1 (worth every penny), but I do think you'd be forced to reconsider your assumption about how much, or how little, the internet changes us if you followed Kunkel's argument from beginning to end. We say of the internet, as we said of television and the telephone, that's it's just a tool and therefore changes nothing essential. But the discovery of certain tools, materials, and techniques can change an entire civilization. So the iron age is importantly different from the stone age, for example. Each medium of mass communication has its own phenomenology. Listening is not the same as watching, watching is not the same as reading, and reading a newspaper is often not the same as reading a blog. What are the differences, and how do they matter? These are interesting and important questions, even if no answer to them comes with indisputable proof.

"The point of this post was to recommend the Kunkel essay and to invite people to discuss a few of the questions it raises. The point was not to begin a debate about the merits of the whole piece on the basis of a two-paragraph quotation. Of course, I cant force you to pay eleven bucks for a copy of n+1 (worth every penny),"Now, now, Matthew, don't get so defensive.... But you do have to answer for a few things. First, where did you get the eleven bucks fantasy from or are you still riding your student advantage? Secondly, I subscribed trusting your enthusiastic wisdom (not usually a combination) and it appears that i have to wait for the mail to get beyond your paltry two paragraphs. Third, I get to read why Bombay became Mumbai but am deprived of that instantaneous gratification of getting my article now from the Internet. Would I do better if I were anonymous?At any rate, I am paralyzed by your assurance that I need to read more than two paragraphs and mortified that I have to wait two weeks or so before I can respond. Do you think you were fair on all this? But then again for a guy who came here from First Things and Crisis Magazine, you have to be given a measure of respect. If not just for the fact that one may wonder what you will say next. Not that this post of yours resembles either magazine.What were we talking about? N+1? Sounds Anti-American to me. Or at least a venial sin. Where is Joe McCarthy or Chaput when we need them?

Bravo, Bill, for the subscription. Hope you find it worth the wait. I meant eleven bucks for a copy, not a subscription -- I'm about ten years too old for any student advantage and I doubt they offer one.

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