Does the Internet have a destructive side to society?

Sarah Palin complained yesterday that “Bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie annoy me,” but for non-profits, blogging is a crucial part of the marketing mix.  Recently, the executive director of River City Community Services attended a workshop put on by an agency that supports non-profits.  The number one message?  Blogs are REALLY important. 

But is the Internet a panacea for all of our communications problems?  No matter what our beliefs or opinions, I think it’s important to read, watch or listen to thoughtful opposing views.  (That’s why I still listen occasionally to Rush Limbaugh — until the bile gathers in my throat, anyway.)

Enter Lee Siegel.  Last year, Siegel wrote “Against the Machine:  Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob” (Spiegel and Grau, 2008).  No Luddite, he nonetheless pulls back the curtain and reveals some things about “the Wizard” of the Internet, things that all of us should at least bear in mind.  In his introduction, he likens the Internet to the automobile of the 1960s, when the car was considered a marvelous, near-perfect invention.  Cars did revolutionalize our lives, bring convenience and status.  But until Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, automakers were able to dismiss criticism about the 50,000 people who died every year in crashes; remember, no seat belts.  Until then, injuries and deaths were considered an inevitable and acceptable cost given cars’ benefits.  So Siegel begins:  “But the Internet has its destructive side just as the automobile does, and both technologies entered the world behind a curtain of triumphalism hiding their dangers from critical view.”

He calls into question a number of “truths” about the Internet:  that it democratizes information, that it fuels creativity, that it promotes individuality and self-expression.  He argues that the driving force behind the Internet is popularity for popularity’s sake and that it is forging a mass consciousness rather than individual creativity.  What we see on the Internet, he argues, is the “mob-self,” in which just about every idea is derivative of someone else’s.  He also charges that it has “created a universal impatience with authority, with any kind of superiority conferred by excellence or expertise.”

So, yes, the non-profits we support should be using blogs.  Blogs, and the variety of communications forms shaping up on the Internet, can make a real contribution to the mission.  But it’s worth taking a moment to consider the social and cultural context of the web.

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