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.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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