Come back Karl. All is forgiven.

Once upon a time, in a dark night for capitalism, we used to ask difficult questions of ourselves, our friends and our society. The fount of injustice, social disconnection, pain and confusion mattered. We used to seek out big answers to big problems. Now we ask who has been voted off Big Brother. Asking these microquestions in microtime has presented a bill for those of us who work in
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Once upon a time, in a dark night for capitalism, we used to ask difficult questions of ourselves, our friends and our society. The fount of injustice, social disconnection, pain and confusion mattered. We used to seek out big answers to big problems. Now we ask who has been voted off Big Brother. Asking these microquestions in microtime has presented a bill for those of us who work in the arts, creative industries and education.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to assist citizens and students to dig below the obvious, simple and predictable. Pondering the Ideological State Apparatus – let alone the Repressive State Apparatus – is a project without a context. This hyper-personal time, where experience has replaced research, means that it is difficult to teach the relevance of social structures, historical arcs or political consequences. Long term roots or reasons have been replaced with a saturatingly sensual present. What we feel is more important than what we think.

The cost of this replacement of thinking with emotion and research for experience is that when the ‘big issues’ do emerge – terrorism, gun crime or xenophobia – we are without the analytical tools to construct a contextual or causal matrix. The flattening of hierarchies, so celebrated in postmodernism, has also compressed the space available for thought and the capacity to interpret a range of opinions. While the diversity of views through Web 2.0 – blogs, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube and Facebook – is celebrated, a careful assessment of the topics of interest and focus rarely accompany this validation of pseudo-democracy.

The drip-drip-drip of micronews about ‘friends’ on Facebook is corroding our capacity to determine the important, relevant and significant. I do not need to know that Fiona is going out to get plastered on Friday night. I do not need to know that Peter snogged a woman in Komedia on Saturday. This endless washing in the banal corrodes our capacity to differentiate between the war on terrorism and the selection of hair care products, or the military build up in the Middle East and shoe shopping.

We always get the cultural critics that we deserve. The 1960s had E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. The 1970s had Stuart Hall and Germaine Greer. We have Malcolm Gladwell, Andrew Keen and Chris Anderson. These men have produced the books that are both the symptoms and trace of our inability to think deeply, challengingly and provocatively. Malcolm Gladwell has written two best sellers: The Tipping Point and Blink. Their subtitles are more significant than their success: ‘How little things can make a big difference’ and ‘The power of thinking without thinking.’ I doubt if there has been a more anti-intellectual title ever produced in popular culture. Reviewers value these books because they are easy to read and the argument is simple to follow. Yet the reason why popular culture is popular is not a simple project. It has been studied by generations of scholars. But instead of applying subcultural theory to understand the movement of signifiers from subordinate to dominant discourses, Gladwell uses the metaphor of popular culture as a virus that – without consciousness or agency – spreads through the population.

His books are filled with stories that justify this argument, confirming once more the problem of our time – experience has replaced research. Indeed Mariano Tufro, a London-based reviewer in’s user-generated reviews, expressed this problem as an advantage: “in an era where we don’t have the luxury to gather lots of information before making a decision a book like Blink can help us become more effective, and realize how amazing the human brain is.” If we live in an era where understanding information has become a ‘luxury,’ then I am interested to discover what Tufro defines as a necessity. Similarly, the convergent Web 2.0 community looks after their own, with The Tipping Point listed in Wikipedia within the category of ‘Sociology books.’ If this is sociology, then I am Jamie Oliver’s pastry chef moonlighting as an academic.

Perhaps the two most famous examples of books whose arguments are so simple that reading the title is the same as reading the book are Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur. Anderson took Amazon, eBay and online music retailers to show how ‘endless choice’ is creating ‘unlimited demand.’ He argues that the focus on bestsellers is misguided and the internet has changed ‘everything.’ Once more technological determinism is fused with neoliberalism, where the market promises endless growth and choice. There is no questioning of whether choice – in and of itself – is valuable, or at what point (a tipping point?), consumerism presents a nasty bill rather than a welcome dividend. When do the waste, environmental damage, banality and stupidity create permanent and unredeemable harm?

It is fascinating how many of these books look inward to other Web 2.0 hyped-up sources as evidence for their arguments. For example, in The Long Tail, Anderson states, “ten years ago, people complained that there was a lot of junk on the Internet, and sure enough, any casual surf quickly confirmed that. Then along came search engines to help pull some signal from the noise, and finally Google, which taps the wisdom of the crowd itself and turn a mass of incoherence into the closest thing to an oracle the world has ever seen.” An oracle? Really? I could not make up such a straw man sentence from the sludge of the digi-fanatics. But in a secular society, we look for gods and demons on the Internet and everlasting life under the surgeon’s knife.

Google – like the gossamer digi-culture built on its name – confuses popularity with quality. It ranks on the number of links and hits to a site. In most Google searches, Wikipedia’s entry is offered as the first returned hit. This is not a long tail service – it is a ruthless ranking of popularity. Also, the sponsored links hover near the cursor at the top of the page for the accidental misreading of the ranking. For Anderson to transform an algorithm into an oracle not only shows that the Enlightenment’s vision of science as truth and progress has been successful, but that Web 2.0 lacks a secular agenda and rationale for being. Marinating in the irrelevant, pointless and silly has presented a bill. Scanning book titles replaces reading books. Google searches replace research. Journalists become the academics of our age, and bloggers become the journalists.

Such a movement has been diagnosed from an unexpected source. Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur features another incisive subtitle: ‘how today’s internet is killing our culture.’ Again – the title is the argument of the book. Keen offers a critique of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (another of these book titles from James Surowiecki) and the excessive egotism of social networking sites. While some of the arguments offered are important, it is a superficial analysis that is confusing a critique of banality, mediocrity and professionalism with an attack on ‘our’ cultural standards and moral values.

As the book continues, Keen becomes fixated on ‘anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.’ He completes the Salvation Army crusade by also attacking online gambling. With ‘the moral fabric of our society … being unraveled by Web 2.0,’ the new folk devils of identity thieves, pedophiles, online gamblers, digi-plagiarists and peer-to-peer music sharing copyright violators are the source of all that is wrong with the world. They are leading us to damnation.

While the trading of sex, luck and music may be the basis of his moral crusade, such a campaign is based on a single error: he is confusing morality with intelligence. He states that, “democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent.” Democracy is not a problem. It must be valued and validated at every opportunity. A critique of Web 2.0 must not lead to a return to elitism. Instead, Web 2.0 should be assessed as a symptom of what has happened to our democratic institutions through the post-war period.

We do not know what democracy looks like. We are still talked at by too many old white men who reference other old white men and call their resultant pronouncements the truth. So many citizens of colour, women and working class people never have an opportunity to gain an education or employment opportunities that are given by and to the affluent and the fortunate. Web 2.0 is not digi-democracy. That is a dangerous metaphor. Instead, the already empowered – who have so many other avenues for self expression and self validation in the analogue environment – pour their voices and views into wiki-enabled media. Remember, many of these sites for ‘social networking’ are based on ‘First Life’ affiliations of shared schools, universities and suburbs. Like-minded people who share a class, literacy and technological competence can converse with people like themselves. This is not democracy. It is country club on a computer.

What I want is more democracy, not less democracy. I want those Facebook addicts to confront the costs and consequences of their fascination with people just like themselves. While they are changing their ‘status,’ there are still solders and civilians dying in Iraq. That is not a hyperbolic connection. Chris Anderson’s ‘endless choice’ is not creating ‘unlimited demand,’ but a demand – through neglect, denial and avoidance – to not make choices about war, injustice and inequality.

Look carefully at the Facebook contributors. They form (a lot) less than one hundredth of one percent of the world’s population. They are bound by many shared characteristics, but one similarity is stark: the whiteness of the faces in Facebook. This is a problem that must bother those who believe in democracy, social justice and social change. It also demonstrates that those of us working in education have not done enough. We have allowed ill-qualified marketers and public relations consultants to provide simple solutions to the wrong questions. We have favoured undemanding reality television rather than thinking popular culture. We have let a generation of women think that the selection of an expensive handbag is not only important, but a statement of pride rather than extravagant consumption and excessive interest in the self.

While Anderson was right to attack bloggers and YouTubers and the cost of an ‘editor-free world,’ democracy has not caused Web 2.0. A lack of democracy has caused Web 2.0. We have confused text messaging with social transformation. Social networking has let us live in comfort with people like ourselves, instead of reaching out to fellow citizens who may challenge us, but also transform us through the dialogue.

Digitization – and the screen culture that has enabled its proliferation – acts as a pixilated barrier to analogue injustice. To see digital culture and democracy as synonymous is to forget the analogue inequalities that blocks millions of citizens in the world from having access to clean drinking water rather than a broadband internet connection. The problem with Web 2.0 is that – to paraphrase The Who – the ‘new boss’ is the same as ‘the old boss.’ Except – to borrow a metaphor from Get Smart – the empowered digi-literate has now ‘chosen’ to be locked in a cone of silence with ‘friends.’ Google searches return us to Wikipedia. YouTube clips manipulate the anonymity of user-generated content to mask the work of public relations consultants and viral marketers. Online social networking is popular because if we socially networked on the train or in the street then we might meet people who are not like ourselves.

It is the shock of difference – the shock of challenge and critique – that we have lost from our culture. Democracy is based on an adversarial system where arguments, debates and discussions forge consensus. The long tail of proliferating mediocrity, where bloggers link to other bloggers and podcasters namecheck other podcasters, is the great cost of Web 2.0. Inwardness and insularity can often spill into xenophobia and a fear of difference. Jűrgen Habermas recognized the cost of confusing democracy with egalitarism, research with experience, and scholarship with opinion. He stated that, “the price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.”

We need Habermas’s focus – on war, the environment and the consequences of a long tail that is now wagging the dog of citizenship. W must demand that education – from pre-primary right through to doctoral levels at University – is a social right, yet it requires a responsibility from our students that they be challenged by difficult knowledge and confront the sharp wind of doubt and confusion. Most importantly, we must remind our students that feelings, experience and chat is not enough. We require thought, research and dialogue. Andrew Keen wants a return to Judeo-Christian ethics. I want a renewal in secular scholarship. These are different goals. He is interested in morality. I am interested in intelligence.

How we ‘choose’ to spend our time matters a great detail. Choice is not only housed within Anderson-inspired long-tail demand in the market economy. When we choose to read one website over another, one book over another, one newspaper over another, then we are making choices of great importance. We are deciding to either be reinforced in our complacency and self satisfaction or shaken by an alternative truth that may – in fact – be wrong but still requires consideration.

Andrew Keen chose the right book title but wrote the wrong argument. Web 2.0 chatter is not a replacement for intelligent commentary and scholarship, but neither is Judeo-Christian morality. Replacing the Google Oracle with another God or Prophet is not helpful in constructing a thoughtful democracy. Fundamentalism of the mind, whether caused by mosque or temple, church or search engine, may bring comfort, but little peace.

Perhaps the time has come to activate Anderson’s long tail and start reading some difficult history again, that does not appear on the first page of Google’s returned searches. Indeed, some of that history may include radicals and revolutionaries dismissed, denied and sidelined after Fukuyama proclaimed The End of History, which should have been subtitled The End of Marxism. Karl Marx has been salt for both the neoliberal and neoconservative broth of evil, darkness, fear and death, being the (supposedly singular) cause of Stalin’s purges, Mao’s cultural revolution and the ongoing threat of Cuba (to whom is uncertain). But in a desire to write history backwards, the complexity of Marx’s life and work is lost. This simulacrum Marx morphs into the blood-stained portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro. Yet in reality, the differences in the men’s contexts do matter. Often forgotten is that Marx was not only a philosopher, revolutionary and advocate for a political position. He was an historian who, like all historians, tried to read and diagnose the social environment to make connections between the past and present. He made mistakes. He offered generalizations based on very specific observations of factory conditions. But at least he arched beyond lived experience and into an affirmation of social change, social consequences and historical injustice.

His mistake was to argue that the contradictions within capitalism would lead to its destruction. Actually, the contradictions within capitalism would lead to fragmentation. Capitalism became capitalisms. Michel Foucault offered a Marx 2.0 when he suggested that all discourses create resistance from within. In other words, domination will always be accompanied by struggles against the powerful. So Web 2.0 actually created Andrew Keen’s resistance in The Cult of the Amateur. There is an optimism and positivity in this recognition that even the most helpless and demoralizing of social inequalities encases a spark of change.

It is not only the history of all hitherto existing societies that is conveniently forgotten in our engorged present. We have also lost one of Marx’s most profound insights: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” With iPods and mobile phones, MySpace and Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, many useful platforms have been created. However these utilities have been transformed into warm and dark places for people with too much time and too few ideas. It is up to those of us who teach for a living to explore how we have created a generation that can send an email as easily as making a cup of coffee, but has nothing to say within it.

Tara Brabazon
About the Author
Tara Brabazon is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom. She is also the Director of the Popular Culture Collective. Tara has published six books, Tracking the Jack: A retracing of the Antipodes, Ladies who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women, Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching, Liverpool of the South Seas: Perth and its popular music, From Revolution to Revelation; Generation X, Cultural Studies, Popular Memory and Playing on the Periphery. The University of Google: Education in a (ost) Information Age is released by Ashgate in 2007. Tara is a previous winner of a National Teaching Award for the Humanities and a former finalist for Australian of the Year.