Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in his Nobel Lecture in Stockholm yesterday, he commented "if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded -- ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day".
It is certainly a rosy idea, that a world with more dialog and discussion would've prevented the carnage and slaughter that accompanied World War II and the Holocaust, but the pessimist in me thinks that technology is a neutral player when it comes to world peace. Give every child in the a world a laptop, and we'll end up with a world just as constrained by economic, social, and ethnic divisions. Technology can certainly be used as an educational tool, but the ability to communicate does not, in and of itself, encourage communication. More eyeballs on a news story doesn't always translate to a more reasoned discussion.
The idea that the Internet would have been prophylaxis to tyranny ignores the role that the Internet played during the build up to the Iraq war. I congratulate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio on his Nobel Prize, but I also wonder if he and I are looking at the same "Internet". Exhibit A...
The Drudge Addiction
After the 9/11 attack, I think many of us had the same addiction: The Drudge Addiction. I would reload it often: maybe eight or nine times a day. Even though I disagreed with the unspoken, paleoconservative subtext of the site itself, after the 9/11 attacks, I tended to view Drudge as beating the established broadcast outlets. News would break, and you could almost bet that it would show up on Drudge first. Then, without fail, the same stories would start to show up on CNN and the networks. Agree with his bias or not, his simple static site was often ahead of the news cycle and you didn't have to wade through a sea of annoying popups or bland USA Today / CNN-style reporting. Of the sites I would check over a lunch break (nytimes.com, slashdot.org, etc.) Drudge was always on that list.
I always viewed Drudge as an imperfect fit, but, even with Drudge's indeterminate rightward bias and penchant for sensationalism, the simplicity of his design were subconscious reassurance in a time of heavy world conflict. Drudge certainly doesn't provide "community" (his site is static HTML), but he did provide a sort of shared context for a shell-shocked nation. For a few years, Drudge's sensationalist, reactionary headlines shaped the newscycle. More recently, I've sensed a collective "recovery" from the Drudge phenomena. I couldn't tell you exactly why, but I have the sense that Drudge's constant alarmism doesn't fit the times. If you check out the Alexa statistics, you'll notice a three month decline of 20%.
What Drudge Wrought
War and fear.
Drudge wasn't "my community", and I suspect that a number of people had a similar experience with the Drudge Report. It was an interesting accident, it was an attention grabbing train wreck, but it certainly wasn't "a community". It was a scandal and jingoism and fear mongering, and I think that, along with other parts of the Fourth Estate, it played a part in taking the US into war. It was the Drudge Report which was trumpeting "Mushroom Clouds" before the invasion of Iraq, remember this?
Five year later, in 2007, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times described Drudge as "a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge's targets of choice". Rutenberg's 2007 article was all about how Hillary Clinton had to learn how to navigate the influence of Drudge in order to win the nomination. For years, Drudge was something of a king maker, but if you go back and look at Drudge via the Wayback machine, you'll see a disturbing picture of ranting, lunacy. The site we were all paying attention to was trumpeting the craziest headlines... If the Sept. 9, 2002 weren't enough, take a look at the next day's page:
Does that bring back memories? This was the defining site of the newscycle. Now, am I arguing that Drudge was responsible for the war? No. I'm making the argument that much of the country was focused on this web site, and that this web site served as something of an "echo chamber" for fearmongering. Our standards, our fear, led us to the point where stories without evidence trumpeted on Drudge became the conversation. The internet was an immediate delivery device for propaganda, leaks, unsubstantiated rumors, and fear. This technology, to which Le Clezio has assigned magic peace making power, was used to beat the drums.
Would the Internet have prevent Hilter via some sort of collective ridicule mechanism? My answer would have to be no. While the internet has certainly helped to expose wrongdoing throughout the world, it has done little to reduce conflict in the world. On the contrary cyberattacks in Estonia demonstrate that the Internet may actually increase the potential for conflict making economic and information warfare much more accessible than it was in the 30s and 40s. The modern equivalent of a Tokyo Rose is likely a blogger on the government payroll. I'm not arguing that the Internet brings us closer to war, I'm only saying that Le Clezio's idea that the internet is a form of perfect discourse is a mistaken idea and it would be too easy to see it trumpeted by the technorati as a truth.
The Post-Drudge Internet and the Future of Collective Discourse
Drudge was the legitimizing "force" shaping discussion and discourse, and I'm convinced that it is growing irrelevant. (Or, at least I'm hoping it grows irrelevant.) I think that as the Drudge brand ages, you'll see it become less and less relevant to the newscycle, but what comes next could be more "interesting" and more "powerful". Will there be an analog of something like the Drudgereport on the collective web (or Quantum Web™) characterized by collaborative filter sites like Reddit. Will the increasing segmentation of the audience lead to new opportunities for the dissemination of propaganda?