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The Rise of the Internet (Anti)- Intellectual?

Two recent essays by Larry Sanger and Evgeny Morozov highlight the absence of academic influence in the framing of theories of new technologies, leaving business orientated experts to dominate the conversation. Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media?

by Nathan Jurgenson On October 19, 2011

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This post originally appeared on Cyborgology.

The title of this post is an homage to two recent essays, the first being Larry Sanger’s “Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?” and the second Evgeny Morozov’s “The Internet Intellectual”, a recent scathing review of Jeff Jarvis’ latest book.

Larry Sanger’s critique of “geek” culture as anti-intellectual is a powerful read (even though I wrote a sort-of critique of Sanger’s post here; and he replied to me here). Sanger’s fundamental point is that modern geek culture is characterized by an anti-intellectual rejection of experts and I want to bring in Morozov’s review to highlight a slightly different point: the techno-experts embraced are anti-intellectual themselves.

My goal in this short piece is to encourage the reader to take a look at these two essays in tandem to suggest a further conversation about the need for public intellectuals, the role of academics in framing theories of new technologies and what the consequences are when we leave this discussion to be dominated by business folks.

Evgeny Morozov

To be read as a pair:

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?, by Larry Sanger.

The Internet Intellectual, by Evgeny Morozov.

To be honest, I tried to dislike Morozov’s review of Jeff Jarvis’ new book, Public Parts. To begin, I have some disagreements with Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion. Further, the review is more than 6,500 words long and begins with some seemingly unnecessary insults against Jarvis as a person. However, Morozov’s dismantling of Jarvis picks up when he quickly moves into attacking the ideas contained in the book. Indeed, Morozov needed nearly all 6,500 words to make the necessary critique.

I will not go through all of the criticism here because this post is not about Jarvis’ book (though, I may post a review of the book as well). Instead, the more interesting point is how Jarvis’ book is part of a larger trend of so-called Internet Intellectuals or “gurus” who are not doing rigorous work but instead providing sound-bites aimed squarely at the business community.

The implications of this are serious: Jarvis tackles the privacy-publicity debate with very little focus on power and inequalities. For more on this point, see my previous critique of Jarvis for discussing these issues without taking on power. Surrendering important conversations to these trade books means that things like previous theorization or serious conversations about social justice will be left out.

Jeff Jarvis

But, of course, not all books need to be so rigorous. My problem is really not with Jarvis, but the fact that these “books that should have remained a tweet”, as Morozov states, have dominated the conversation about what the rise of new and social media means. I do not care that these fun little books exist, but that they are dominating the public conversation.

Perhaps the fault lies with the more rigorous intellectuals, both in and outside academia, who have made themselves largely absent from the public conversation about new technologies? Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media? Why is it that Jeff Jarvis is setting the public conversation on publicity, Andrew Keen on amateurism, Tapscott and Williams on prosumption, Siva Vaidhyanathan on the impact of Google on society or Chris Anderson on abundance economies and “free”? To be clear, I think it is good that these folks hit on important topics in a catchy way. But they cannot be the whole picture, nor should they even be at the center. None of them provide a rigorous historical or theoretical treatment of their topics. (We called out Siva Vaidhyanathan on this blog after attending his a-theoretical talk at a public university).

If we can indeed convince more scholars to take on these topics, and there are many who are doing so already, do they have any chance at being public intellectuals? That is, can the ideas be delivered in a way that engages those interested, regardless if they have a degree in any specific field? For intellectuals to be public intellectuals they will need to be as engaging of writers as those authors listed above.

Larry Sanger

Or maybe the blame for the Sesame Street level books that dominate tech-writing is that publishers simply are not allowing public intellectuals to publish their ideas? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has insights into this area.

In the meantime, I think the two essays linked to above are an important pairing to start a conversation over who gets to frame how new technologies are understood. Will it be a-historical, a-theoretical, non-rigorous business folks or can we inspire a new wave of technology-centered public intellectuals?

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Photo Credit: Flickr CC SimSullen, re:publica 2011, Ophelia Noor

Follow Nathan Jurgenson on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

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