Last year a CNN headline announced, “Internet Gives Voice to Unseen Actors.” The article detailed how websites advertising the services of voice actors are allowing thousands of people to find work broadcasting their disembodied voices across the globe, often for corporate instructional tapes. It’s a typical story of the Internet flattening the world, of opportunities materializing where there were few before. But the headline is what struck me: it may as well be the slogan of Web 2.0, or participatory online culture, or whatever pundits, boosters, sociologists, adolescent-development experts and privacy watchdogs are calling the dominant paradigm this week. One longtime voice actor recalls how difficult it was to get work in 1985, when “no one had a Web site. Today I regularly voice a podcast for a high-tech client, which they share on their Web site as a value-added service.”
There are countless articles and book-length studies telling the stories of millions of people who have been “allowed” or “freed” to do one thing or another by the Internet–as if the “network of networks” were a deus ex machina descended to solve problems related to the economy, creativity and democracy. “The possibilities are endless,” one story reads, “if you have enough engaging executions and manage to keep the user’s attention.”
Many of these articles and books also consider what the Internet has made people less capable of doing: immersing oneself in a 600-page novel, using coffee shops as meeting houses rather than ersatz open cubicles, maintaining the distinction between a social interaction and the projection of a persona or replicating the levels of productivity common before the factory line was replaced by the information economy and its attendant distractions.
But more important: how are the kids doing? The sons and daughters raised suckling at the nodes of cyberspace, variously called Digital Natives, First Globals and the “Look at Me” generation, have been encouraged, if not compelled, to express themselves uninhibitedly, and frequently. Sometimes people get paid to do so. Mostly, they do not. Whether or not they’re profiting, “They have come to have a degree of control over their cultural environment that is unprecedented,” and that is something to be applauded, assert John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in Born Digital (Basic Books, $25.95), their recent study of the Internet’s impact on (mostly) well-off white kids. “These young people are not passive consumers of media that is broadcast to them, but rather active participants in the making of meaning in their culture. Their art form of the remix, where digital files are combined to create a new video or audio file, is already having an effect on cultural understanding around the world.”
Unlike so many reckonings with the Internet’s seeming degradation of society and culture, Palfrey and Gasser’s argument is enthusiastic about the possibility for new, compelling forms of culture to emerge from the information cesspool. They even dedicate a chapter–“Creators”–to it. But their conclusion, that the rise of user-generated content has empowered young people to take part in a conversation formerly controlled by the mandarin classes, is premised on a pivotal mistake: the confusion of self-expression with art.