What happened? And how did we get here?

Very thoughtful post by Willard McCarty in the Digital Humanities newsletter:

In the wake of the latest terrorist attack in London, the Scottish novelist and editor Andrew O’Hagan spoke on Radio 4 this morning about the Internet.

He recalled the millenarian hopes for it during his youth and contrasted them with what has become of it in the hands of those with evil intentions. His conclusion (spoken in sorrow) was that “We are not good enough as people to have an unrestricted network”. We need “a battalion of mindful editors” to regulate it, he said.

Perhaps neither seems surprising now; once, as O’Hagan remarked, the Internet seemed to many a cure for the world’s problems, as indeed the telephone did in its early days. But the darkness visible of terrorism isn’t the only sign of the times. I think, for example, of that unmoderated online forum recently shouted down during a discussion of the word ‘motherboard’ and then shut down to figure out where from here. Yes, professionally we live in a sheltered world, but the problems at the root of seemingly minor annoyances are very real — and applicable out there, where people run mortal risks.

Consider that the “battalion of mindful editors” requires the recruitment and training our universities should be able to give, indeed should be giving. But they are crippled, as social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern wrote in 1992, by an Enterprise Culture which “like a slick that smothers everything in shine” gives us workplaces “where students are supposed to mean numbers, public accountability must be interpreted as resource management, and education has to appear as a service for customers”.1

  1. Marilyn Strathern, “Introduction: Artificial Life”, in Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester University Press, 1992), p.8.