Sunday, October 3, 2010

How To Be A Revolutionary

To take a tangent off of The Social Network brouhaha, it’s a shame that much of the criticism takes the from of, oh, roughly this:
"This is all about snobbery, about dismissing all this Internet stuff. The filmmakers didn't give any value to what Zuckerberg made. How can they say that they understand him if they don't understand his creation? It's dismissive of the 500 million or so people who are on Facebook. It's intellectually lazy. It's insulting."
(Lawrence Lessig is not quite so angry, but seems to have similar thoughts. Jarvis also approvingly quotes a New York magazine calling the movie an "old media spitball at the new media," which gets to the heart of his Manichean view of old media versus new media.)  Aside from the claim about the movie—which I think is a very incorrect reading of the film—I think it doesn’t make much sense to think about the world this way. These kind of comments are only possible from the perspective that somehow old media and new media are locked in some epic clash from which only one can emerge (and the other must be carted away on its shield), which is almost certainly the wrong way to think about it.

The truth is that while new media is disrupting much of old media and rendering large parts of it obsolete (why would you read, say, The Billings Gazette’s Washington coverage when you can read the Washington Post’s Washington coverage?), new media is also building upon old media in a way that makes the legacy media better than it’s ever been before. It’s never been better to read The New York Times whether you live in the Upper East Side or Uzbekistan. And you can say much the same thing about practically any of the other media categories—never been easier to get access to books, new or used; never been easier to get access to movies, new or used; never been easier to get access to TV shows, whether live or a few days old—in ways that the internet and other newfangled technologies are basically responsible.

The notion that the new must entirely displace the old rather than symbiotically improve both is a typical attitude for revolutionaries and those on the vanguard, who must naturally commit themselves to the belief that this new unproven thing they are committing to will work despite the skepticism of oldline people (who have themselves seen so many revolutions sputter under the weight of practicality). This habit of thought is closely related to the way people think about economics—with immigration being a particularly good example—in which the categorize the world as being zero-sum (like sports) instead of positive sum. This isn’t the way the world works, and we owe our prosperity to it. It’d be good for everyone to recognize it.

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