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Treasure Trove or Trash: The Internet and Its Ability to Enact Social Change


In his book “The Shallows”, Nicholas Carr presents readers with the notion that the traditional method of reading books, essays, and various other written works is superior to what is offered today on the internet. This is in stark contrast to the assumptions of Clay Shirky in his book “Cognitive Surplus” in which he states how the internet has provided people with a platform in which to collaborate, experiment and as a result create effective social change through various collaborative works. While there is no “right” answer for this particular divergence in views it can be assumed that such divergent assumptions might be the result of different points of view. Such a case is similar to the observation made by novelist Harvey Swales in 1951 during the rise in popularity of the paperback novel in which he stated that it could be the start of either an increase in the value of produced material or the inundation of trashy literature into an already polluted ocean of books and novels. As such, the answer to the divergent views of Carr and Shirky all boils down to the assumed value of what is produced.

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The internet on any given day produces hundreds of thousands of pages of content, easily rivaling and surpassing the traditional publishing world in the amount of material produced however most of what is created is of poor literary quality, incomparable to what is written by professional writers and scholars. On the other hand, the collaborative aspect of the internet in which people can add their ideas, assumptions and create their content for public viewing has inevitably created a flood of user-created content that surpasses current media trends in television making online collaboration and writing the norm rather than a rarity. In this case, the statement made by Swales must be taken into consideration as to whether or not current web trends create an ever-increasing amount of literary treasure troves or are nothing more than a flood of trash with little perceived value that has no value towards social and cultural development.

Diverging Concepts on Value

For Carr, the internet is a medium based on the concept of interruption where multitasking and rapid-fire reading is the norm rather than curious oddities. Reading short articles, responding to emails, and chatting at the same time has become so ubiquitous with internet usage that most people barely give it a second thought. On the other hand, as Carr explains, this has resulted in people losing the ability to enter into a slow, contemplative method of thinking normally associated with reading novels in print. The crowding out effect can be seen where people find it harder to concentrate on lengthy articles, books, or essays and a growing preference has developed for short rapid-fire articles which can be browsed within a few minutes. For Carr, the perceived value of the internet is one of human deterioration where people lose the ability for solitary single-minded concentration in favor of rapid-fire multitasking. In essence, the argument of Carr represents the proliferation of thousands if not millions of websites solely devoted to brief articles that do not even reach the initial steps of literary heights reached by classical and modern-day literature found in various books, novels, and academic journals.

The one factor that Carr fails to address is the fact that though literature found in print may promote deep forms of contemplation though it lacks the accessibility and interactivity seen on the internet where any topic can be found at the click of a button and interacted with in the form of comments, reviews or personal interpretations available for public viewing. For Shirky, it is this ability to interact and create rather than remain a static passive observer that makes the internet a positive force towards the buildup of social and cultural development. In his book, “Cognitive Surplus” Shirky explains how as a whole our current society has developed a surplus in the amount of time allotted for daily activities which are wasted on watching television due to its static nature.

In a sense, the static nature of television is comparable to the contemplative nature of reading novels that create a form of single-minded concentration. While this may be a radical idea in a clear departure from the normal assumptions regarding television and reading the fact remains that both activities are static and do not actually contribute towards improving social development. It is only in direct application and contribution that an activity can be considered a contribution while an individual that remains static does little to improve society as a whole. It is from this that it can be assumed that social and cultural development can only be accomplished through dynamic contribution due to the action of actually doing something versus being static and doing nothing.

Web Trends and the Concept of Dynamic Contribution to Social and Cultural Development

In the eyes of Shirky, the internet acts as an open platform for contribution where user driven content and collaboration drives social and cultural development. Collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia, Wiki’s and social networking sites such as blogs, twitter and online message boards all contribute to utilizing the aptly named cognitive surplus towards creating an ever increasing amount of user driven content that contributes towards societal development. While Shirky does indicate that not all content is productive such as the internet meme “lolcats” the fact remains that people are actually doing something rather than remaining static that signals a progressive change towards dynamic social interaction (Ruberg 33).

Online projects such as Wikipedia, Project Guttenburg, Ushahidi and various other online drivers of collaboration help to improve the accessibility of information and promotes drivers of interactivity resulting in greater amounts of user driven content. As it was mentioned earlier, the indicator of progressive social and cultural change is dynamic contribution with the internet being the latest and best instrument to bring about such changes to human society (Drezner 31). The only problem facing the contributions made on the internet to act as triggers to create change in society is in their inherent value and the amount of control asserted on them.

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When examining the level of content on the internet, a vast majority of what is currently online is basically for the purposes of entertainment; for every Wikipedia or Ushahidi site that contributes to development there are hundreds devoted solely to nonsensical topics that do little to actually improve society. As with all tools, it is in its use that determines its worth and as such the worth of the internet is in direct proportion to the positive applications created through it. When comparing the statement of Swales regarding the possibility of a flood of trash inundating the world of literature as a result of the paperback novel with the current state of affairs of the internet and its multitude of sites one can readily see a comparable facsimile between the flood of debasing literature for Swales and the sheer amount of utterly useless information found online.

On the other hand developments such as Wikipedia, Google Books, Project Guttenberg and various review sites have enabled users to contribute to the wealth of knowledge that the internet is known for further expanding the ability of individual users to gain access to all forms of information whether it be statistical, opinionated, encyclopedic or even a mere review. Even social networking sites such as Facebook, twitter and MySpace have helped to create collaborative online communities that can actually enact social change in the real world. The infamous online group Anonymous is famous for setting up the February 2008 protests against the church of scientology wherein literally thousands of people around the world protested outside various scientology establishments and churches. The website Wikileaks has helped to encourage transparency in government operations and various other message boards have become spring boards for actually change in the way society has begun to operate on a global scale. Based on this it can be seen that true change is on the way for the internet, a true tool for societal collaboration to enact change on a global scale.

Skeptics like Carr may cite that the internet changes the way in which the mind works when it comes to factors such as deep reading and single minded concentration but the fact remains that applications such as Google books and even eBooks that are available on line have helped to encourage reading on a more massive scale with the easy availability of resources resulting in a more proliferate rather than isolated reading audience. The only factor that can inhibit this is the possibility of overly stringent government controls that attempt to inhibit the influences of the internet on the general population. As seen in the case of the recent Egyptian people power revolution as well as the stringent controls placed on internet viewing in China as well as the U.A.E the internet has been acknowledged as a powerful force for change that can reach literally millions of people. Based on this the future of the internet and its ability to encourage collaboration and the spread of knowledge and ideals will be entirely dependent on how people will help to encourage the openness and accessibility that the internet is known for today (Cammaerts 225).

Changing Perspectives

Today the internet has continued to develop as a collaborative tool in which people are able to continuously submit and improve on the wealth of human knowledge available however just as Swales has indicated the possibility of the inundation of trash with new forms of publication the internet most certainly has created an influx of prohibitively useless material over the course of its existence. People have started to prefer short articles rather than long lines of text and the collaborative efforts often praised by Shirky often result in the creation of substantially useless material that is for the most part dedicated to mere entertainment. Anything truly valuable on the internet is developed not out the disorderly forms of collaboration often seen on social networking sites or blogs but rather comes about as a result of coordinated efforts by small groups of people. Projects such as Wikipedia, Project Guttenberg and various other reference tools available online are created by only a small percentage of online internet users with a majority being static viewers or dynamic contributors of trash. Nearly 90% of everything that goes online is basically created for the purposes of entertainment with little if any literary value. Despite this, it can still be said that such projects do continue to encourage social change and development. Collaboration and coordinated development are still new concepts to the various online users and communities found on the internet and as such what is produced now can be considered online social change in its infancy. As online communities continue to grow and the need arises various individuals will continue to come together to create projects which will continue to contribute to and shape society at the present. Arguments and criticisms directed at the internet now cannot foresee what could possibly happen in the future, just as the era of overindulgence occurred in London during 1750 as a result of new societal pressures being placed on the urban population which eventually subsided so to will the inundation of useless literature subside. The internet is obviously a tool for change and as such will continue to grow and improve and create an ever increasing amount of projects which will bring about a more collaborative and united society in the future.

Works Cited

Drezner, Daniel W. “Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect On State-Society Relations.” Brown Journal of World Affairs 16.2 (2010): 31-44. EBSCO. PDF.

Cammaerts, Bart. “The eConvention on the Future of Europe: Civil society and the Use of the Internet in European Decision–making Processes.” Journal of European Integration 28.3 (2006): 225-245.EBSCO. PDF.

Carr, Nicholas. What the Internet is Doing to our Brains The Shallows. New York: Norton & Company, 2010. eBook.

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Ruberg, Bonnie. “Cash In on the Internet Memes Phenomenon.” PC World 27.8 (2009): 33. EBSCO. PDF.

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. eBook.

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