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More Perfect Union: Internet

We live in a time when just about every national institution is experiencing difficulties or is right out failing. There are many reasons why this is happening, but much of it boils down to two basic forces: dramatic over-reaching and the influence of the Internet. I’ll leave the hubris of our financial sector to Shakespeare, since he made a living out of depicting it well, but the Internet is the opportunity and challenge of our time. There’s little doubt it will redefine what “media” is, and along with that the bits and pieces of a culture which are delivered by a medium.

The first major challenge posed by the Internet was to the music industry, which succeeded in having a punishing law passed to clamp down on pirates. They were careful to preserve their ability to make money off of songs even as some artists (especially Ani DiFranco) used the internet to distribute their own content, sometimes for free. Writers have similarly played both sides of the ‘net, gaining new outlets for their work but trying to fight to keep printed matter more exclusive. Some of that was lost recently when google won the right to scan out of print books, meaning that while music gained special protections, literature did not.

The Internet, however, fits will with the basic culture of the USofA in one important way; we are a people of Folk Culture, not High Culture. Our sense of what makes up a culture is as Democratic as our government, valuing knitting and carpentry alongside writing and music. Even those things that could be considered High Art are usually crafted in a way that has a lot of popular appeal.

If we allow the Internet to evolve as a medium of self-expression, there’s always the possibility that some kind of culture-inducing art will come from it. The problem is that the ‘net allows people to gravitate towards the sub-cultures that they already find themselves attracted to, reinforcing their own opinion. A culture that serves to unite us into one nation has to bridge these divides, and current Internet usage rarely does this. If anything, it may make the divides stronger.

Why do we need a strong sense of culture in the first place? After all, if so may of our institutions are failing from over-reach, why not stop reaching around the world and keep our hands in our own pockets for a change? It does seem to make sense. Before mass communication of any kind, regional accents and differences in culture were part of the great Federal system that the USofA was based on. So what if people down South listen to Country or Zydeco or, if you go far enough South, Merengue?

This question gets to the heart of why we need some kind of common culture in the first place; to understand our neighbors and allow us to organize to solve common problems. A people who live close together who do not have a common understanding are a people that are easily exploited and have a tough time remaining free. It may be that we don’t need a national concept of common culture, but instead a stronger regional identity that holds us together. This is even more important in a culture which is highly mobile and allows people to move freely; a stronger sense of regional culture would present a barrier to mobility based purely on preference and nothing stronger. That solves the over-reaching problem, but it goes against the strengths of the Internet.

Of all the victims of changing media, none has been hit harder by the Internet than newspapers. The shame of it all is that the Internet delivers news from Tajikistan often more effectively than it does news from down the block. Where the focus needs to sharpen as you get close, ‘net news is distance independent. For purposes of supporting culture at its roots and effective organization, the ‘net has to learn how to be more local.

I think we know that all media are changing because of the Internet. What’s less obvious is that with the right bits and pieces in place, this could also encourage a resurgence in culture, broadly defined, starting at the local level. In other words, Citizen Journalism as a movement is probably about much more than delivering news to people, but about a community being “a people”. Making this work and creating the appropriate revenue model to support it is what is needed to make this something far more than just another over-reach. But what we have to do is create a revenue model that will allow this to work for journalists and artists alike.

Other posts in the series More Perfect Union:
More Perfect Union
More Perfect Union: Literature
More Perfect Union: Publishing
More Perfect Union: Music

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12 thoughts on “More Perfect Union: Internet

  1. Erik: Again my brain aches. So I read it twice, even thrice over, and I am feeling an awakening intellect. I think you are on to something—especially based on my blog-experience of this election cycle. Not my own so much, but others I read as research for mine. That research sometimes put me days ahead of print media.

  2. So if the internet can divide us as much as bring us together, what use is it? Seems like we need more positive changes in our world than that. Or are you making a bigger point again? 🙂

  3. Yes, I am making a bigger point. I want people to think about larger ideas like “culture” because I’m never going to have all the answers. But I’ll do my best to share what answers I do have on Friday.

    I think it’s very important to come to some kind of agreement about basic decency and stop being so pissy about stupid things. Seeing how immigrants and homosexuals can be used as wedges to promote bad politics and prevent ANYTHING from ever getting done is just a symptom of the problem.

    The real problem is that E Pluribus ain’t so Unum anymore. That’s what I hope to work out.

  4. I think culture has kind of been put into channels by the internet. Instead of having the main stream media decide what is important we can all kind of choose our news. I think I get a more balanced picture of everything by reading a few sources instead of one. As for culture in general the internet promotes culture in many ways. I would expand on that but I couldn’t do it in less than a zillion words. The internet creates new cultures.

  5. I really worry about this phenomenon, especially with regard to people in the same room sending each other email (not that I know anyone who would do that). The internet has made it MUCH less likely that I pick up the phone to talk to a friend. I have facebook now, and I just need to check someone’s “status” to know what they are doing. I don’t actually have to interact with them as a real human being in any way.
    Twitter is kinda fun sometimes and it can be nice to stay in touch throughout the day with people and/or issues that matter to me. But the way it divides my attention and makes me less able to concentrate on “bigger” things at work probably is a detriment to my work culture.
    These are important questions to be asking and I think the truth is somewhere in the vast unknown and will continue to evolve and change as the technology evolves and changes. It seems _really_ important to be conscious of the possible downsides of internet as a disintegrating tool though. There is no substitute for real human interaction, a hug, a smile, or a real voice picking up the phone once in a while.

  6. Teresa, you’re absolutely right that the internet makes a broader “Folk” culture possible – but the channels make it harder to find. My next piece is going to be on what I think has to (and probably will) happen to get around this.

    Basically, it could be a great thing that brings us together, or it could be something that separates us the way Cristy worries. I think that with a small nudge we can make great.

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