Neoliberal Digitalism?

Posted: June 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm  |  By: Dennis Deicke  |  Tags: , , , , ,

Review of Susanne Gaschke , Klick – Strategien gegen die digitale Verdummung. Herder, Freiburg: 2009.

Susanne Gaschke‘s book Klick – Strategies Against Digital Stultification describes how the increasing prevalence of the internet and new media influences the culture of knowledge and education. She criticizes an infinite optimism of media, politics and science towards this phenomenon and decries an uncritical handling of the internet. Gaschke characterizes people following the paradigm of new media blindly as ideologists; she calls them ‘digitalists.’ Furthermore, a criticism of modern neoliberal capitalism accompanies her fundamental demand for more pessimism towards the new media.

Susanne Gaschke, a journalist writing for the German weekly DIE ZEIT, admits that she might be biased due to her profession in an old medium like a newspaper. To Gaschke, the ability to read is the most necessary competence in a modern society: „who reads, learns thinking“. But the digitalists have chosen a new ability to be crucial for a working society: media competence. Gaschke does not assert that media literacy is unimportant but she insists that being able to read still is the core competence, which enables other abilities. Thus she criticizes the unconsidered support of new media in all parts of life, especially in the educational system. Schools and kindergartens are supplied with computers, networks and software by the IT-industry. Politics accept it, knowing that corporations like Microsoft do not equip schools because of limitless altruism, but to tie customers to their brand, at a very young age.

Referring to Nicholas Carr‘s article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Susanne Gaschke claims that internet use has changed the way we perceive and consume texts and media. Similar to Carr she points out that pace and restlessness have altered our patterns of cognition. The internet conditions the user to search for short texts he can browse briefly and superficially. For both Carr and Gaschke this results in a severe threat to the ability of concentrating. Susanne Gaschke holds the view that the digitalists are not open for any forms of critique of the new technology. She insists that fighting against new technological trends is always difficult, and quotes Adorno who already pointed out that criticizing new technologies is like fighting against the world spirit.

For Susanne Gaschke the group of digitalists is composed of the IT-industry, online service providers, media scientists, journalists and users. They all celebrate the beginning of a new era for mankind beginning with new media. Gaschke does not believe in all the hopes and promises linked with the digital world. She rejects aspirations concerning democratization and emancipation resulting in a politically functioning publicity, which emerged in beginning of the 90‘s. Gaschke points out that new media are not used to gain politically important information. Mainly it used for entertainment, to pass time and to consume products. That is where media pedagogy enters the discussion and claims to be the discipline teaching people how to use the internet. But for Gaschke this is not the main problem; she worries about the continuing distraction generated by the ubiquitous new media, which are available everywhere and anytime.

Gaschke warns the reader not to believe in the promises made by the digitalists. For Gaschke it is clear that the internet will not solve social problems, it will not close social gaps and it will not cause the emergence of a perfect society. She uses studies exemplifying that internet users do not read, but browse over websites briefly. Thus, she concludes, the perfect image of an overall informed, critical internet user does not exist often in reality. The problem of the youth is not the lack of access to information. The issue is that the ever-increasing digitalization has taken away their ability to understand and read things as a whole. Through the internet, people just do not have to read attentively anymore, because they have the belief they can find everything on the net. This notion of having information and knowledge anytime within a reachable distance is a threat to knowledge and education. Following this principle, adolescents are taught to get information easily and with few effort in the internet. Gaschke depicts this practice as a neglect of duty in education.  She raises the question what will happen if everyone relies on the principle of finding rather than knowing. For me this is a core question in the whole debate Gaschke starts: if everyone relies on search engines results, who is the person making sense of all the information that is found?

Further more, Gaschke points out the digitalists‘ belief that all information on the internet can be treated equally. For Gaschke this ends up in egalitarianism. Her view is that society depends on hierarchical structures of knowledge, which are rejected consistently by the digitalists. She admits that the internet offers opportunities to inform oneself beyond the things learned in school or from journalism. But at least, and I think Gaschke is right, the society needs a certain consensus about the things that are important to know. Another important aspect Gaschke states is that society always has to rely on experts. The digitalists believe that knowledge structures and hierarchies disappear because of the access to information through the internet. But as Gaschke exemplifies it: If I want orthopaedic advice, I want to get it from an orthopaedist and not from somebody who knows what an orthopaedist does, and posted it on Wikipedia.

Another interesting topic mentioned by Susanne Gaschke concerns the distinction between adulthood and childhood, which is fading away due to the use of new media. Referring to Neil Postman, Gaschke holds the view that adults are keepers of secrets which are slowly revealed to children during the process of growing up. But the extensive use of the internet by children changes this situation, because they are confronted with the secrets not mediated by their parents: „The digital culture cannot deal with symbolic secrets which are meaningful for the process of growing up“. Here she traceably argues that this confrontation can obviously happen too early, and confuse children more than it enlightens them.  A further aspect mentioned by Susanne Gaschke is that new media simultaneously change adults and convert them to children again. The internet looses the adult‘s self restrictions, characterizing adulthood, and enhances accommodating the inner drives, which eventually results in clicking. She wants to prove this process of adults mutating to children by using figures that demonstrate that the age of people playing computer has risen. Thus they become more like children, because playing video games is for children. But I think the higher level of age is mainly a consequence of the former video-gaming kids becoming older and keeping on playing, not a result of older people suddenly starting to play computer games.

Additionally, Susanne Gaschke questions the usefulness and the concept of Web 2.0. She admits that the web offers the opportunity of connecting scientists and enabling exchange of knowledge, but she is critical of terms like ‘wisdom of the crowds’ or ‘peer production,’ because the basis of these principles should be expertise, which is not always prevalent in the Web 2.0. She consults the Condorcet Theorem (referring to the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet), which says that groups are able to take better and exacter decisions, but only under the conditions that at least one half of the group has the necessary knowledge. Otherwise the group’s decision will be terribly wrong. In addition, she criticizes the quality and the necessity of contributions in the Web 2.0. She questions if it is a benefit that everyone can publish his views on something, even if they are untrue or inciting. But I am of the opinion that this is not an online problem in most instances. Web 2.0 just mediates information and is not the origin of certain problematic views or contributions. It is just a new way of distribution; shielding Web 2.0 from becoming a successful channel for extremists is mainly a task of society, which should generally prevent people from following dangerous ideas. She also decries the enhancing influence of the internet on phenomenona like happy slapping (slap other people and film it with the cell phone) or rampages, because the internet provides the protagonists with an audience. But I believe that blaming new media for events like that is not adequate, they just make these things more visible but do not cause them. Another terrible example she mentions concerns the case of Abraham Biggs who began suicide and broadcasted his death over the internet in January 2008 and none of the viewers called emergency, they watched him die. Gaschke admits that the internet was not the reason of the suicide, but it gave him the chance to broadcast it live. But again, an absence of the internet would not have avoided his death; it just would not have been that visible.

Moreover she argues that the blog culture does not result in a open discourse which eventually produces the completely enlightened unified community. Miriam Meckel (communication scientist, St. Gallen) believes that in Weblogs the users develop the synthesis as a result of discussing thesis and anti-thesis. But Gaschke rejects that by citing an American study showing that 90 percent of references made by blogs, are links to other blogs that have nearly the same opinion, so they are more likely to be echo rooms than areas of balanced discussions.

Furthermore, she critizes social networks for being platforms of self-profiling. People use it to show who they are and to find acceptance and recognition. But Gaschke is of the opinion that this produces a false image, especially for adolescents who believe that friends can be found easily on the web without real-life investments. For her, the demand for online relations and friendships is just a consequence of a lack of social contacts in reality, but those cannot be replaced that easily, because the virtual relations will never be as intense as the real ones.

As a print journalist, Gaschke is consistently arguing against the substitution of newspapers through online news. The main reason to keep them is that newspapers are initially consumed as a whole; they confront the reader with information and opinions he does not (want to) know. The customization of news on the internet destroys this process. Another fundamental problem Gaschke identifies is the lack of quality in online news. Online news is cheaper to produce but generates the same amount of advertising revenue and thus the quality suffers. For Gaschke another reason for the inferiority of online news is that they often rely on user-generated content and exploit bloggers, who work for free and often do not have the expertise of a journalist. She might be right with this point, but I would avoid the term of exploitation, because nobody forces users to give away their produced material.

A fundamental aspect of Gaschke‘s book is that she consequently links her criticism of new media with criticism of today’s form of capitalism. To her, the new culture caused by the internet is just the logical outcome of neoliberal capitalism that has reigned over the past decades. Throughout the years neo-liberalism has altered society. Flexibility became the crucial credo for people who wanted to function properly in the modern ‘knowledge society,’ which is a neoliberal propaganda term in Gaschke‘s eyes. Her interesting opinion is that new media force us to be even more flexible, so flexible that we might lose the last carryover of necessary stability. The mentioned mutation from adults to children again is just a wish of capitalism, because they are the better consumers, they do not contain themselves. The neoliberal paradigm has desocialized and fragmented society by forcing people to become flexible and restless, always ready to focus on something ‘new.’ These attributes are now converted to internet culture and enhanced by new media simultaneously.

Gaschke even sees the desire for relationships in social networks as a consequence of the neoliberal system. People search online because neo-liberalism produced an unstable society, which lacks real, intense relations. And she gives a very absorbing explanation for digitalists being ideological: before the collapse of the Soviet Union capitalism did not need to be ideological, because the alternative system was not successful. But after the fall of the Soviet Union the alternative disappeared and flexible capitalism created an ideology strongly conjoined with technology: new media will provide everyone with knowledge, information and prosperity. „This ideology leaves a few winners, a considerable group of losers and a big stack of pancake-persnoalities, which do not flourish in the chaos but stretch out to all directions“, Gaschke says. But one can just turn this argument upside down and assert that because of the system alternative communism, capitalism was ideological and does not have to be it anymore. To Gaschke, the digitization is just an additional instrument of rationalization; she finds proof of this in the computer-based economic increase, which resulted in an decrease of 130,000 jobs in the media sector in the United States.

Susanne Gaschke‘s work is an interesting and alarming book, urging the reader to question the whole hype in regards of new media. She makes plenty of interesting points that are often not taken into consideration when the influence of new media is discussed. I share her opinion that we should not glorify the internet as the new instrument to create a reasonable and informed society, without necessary investments in real education.  But since she is a journalist, her critique often is polemical and her arguments could be discussed in a more balanced way.

German Wikipedia page about Susanne Gaschke:
http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susanne_Gaschke

A link to Nichloas Carr‘s article „Is Google Making Us Stupid?“:
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

English Wikipedia page about the philosopher Marquis de Condorcet:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet

Homepage about Gaschke‘s book from the publisher Herder:
http://www.herder.de/buecher/gesellschaft_politik/detailseiten/29996_Klick/details?k_tnr=29996&par_onl_struktur=1573791&onl_struktur=0&sort=3&query_start=&tb=0&titel=Klick

Brainless Text Culture and Mickey Mouse Science

Posted: June 19, 2009 at 7:13 pm  |  By: Dennis Deicke  |  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Review of Stefan Weber, Das Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome: Wie Netzplagiate Ausbildung und Wissen gefährden. Heise Verlag, Hannover: 2009.

The Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome: How Web-Plagiarism endangers Education and Knowledge, written by Stefan Weber, deals with the influence of the ever-increasing internet use on the prevalent culture of knowledge. Austrian media scholar Weber states that the soaring spread of the new media results in a „text culture without brains.“ Stefan Weber decided to become a plagiarism-scientist after he discovered that a theologian from Tübingen has written off 90 pages of his own dissertation. Since that he has collected 14 folders with over 60 cases of plagiarism which build the base of his work. Internet enhances plagiarism in schools, journalism, the arts and especially at universities. Weber criticizes current media and cultural studies programs which ignore the augmented emergence of plagiarism due to an exaggerated optimism towards new media, thereby enhancing the problem by spreading their infinitely technophile theories.

The author, who lives and works in Dresden and Salzburg, states that today‘s students follow a process of three steps to create academic texts. Initially, they Google their topic. Then they copy and paste significant parts of text found on the Web. Knowing the importance of the outside appearance they finally layout their produced mosaic. Weber cites American studies proving that 36% of the students have admitted to have copied sentences in the web and have pasted it into their academic work. For Weber this development is the consequence of the omnipresent use of the internet, because it facilitates the appropriation of texts. The author argues that by allowing this “culture without brains” to spread, the elaborate academic system of reference puts itself in danger. Weber‘s position is that a „recycling“ text culture, which permits people to plagiarize, will end up in scientific stagnation.

The number of plagiarism cases has increased over the past years and Weber relates this to the increased employment of the internet. A current example of plagiarism is Chris Anderson’s Free. Waldo Jaquith revealed in a blog that he discovered passages in the book that were nearly copied verbatimly, mostly from Wikipedia but also from other publications, without references. Chris Anderson already has apologized and wants to publish the references digitally. Besides Weber uses studies in the United States and the UK, which show that ca. 30% of all students are plagiarizing. But these numbers also reveal that the source of plagiarism is more often a printed book than an online text. This weakens Weber‘s argument that a new culture of plagiarism has risen online because it shows that the writers of these studies mostly wrote off paper books and that plagiarism is not an online problem in most instances. Though that does not debilitate his thesis, saying that the culture of appropriating texts (no matter of what kind of source) without comprehending them derives from extensive internet use. Because it is still possible that using the internet lowers the threshold to begin plagiarizing.

Weber admits that there are no empirical data that prove a positive influence of the Web 2.0 on the number of plagiarism cases. In spite of that he claims that there is a positive influence on the culture of producing texts without reference. This „sampling culture“ is enhanced by the free licensing ideas existing in the internet. Weber traceably argues that the idea of free licensing derives from the development of software and should not be transferred unconcerned to a knowledge culture that is based on texts.

Weber asserts that content is not the most important thing on the Web 2.0 because it provides the user with the technical preconditions to put up websites easily (with software like media wiki). After creating a new site it needs to be filled with content that is usually copy-pasted from elsewhere. I hold the view that this argument is not very convincing. Concluding that the existence of a technology that facilitates the production of content results in plagiarism seems to be too critical. Logically, it should be the other way around. Because technical investments are marginal, there are more resources available to create content. Today, nobody would assert that Gutenberg‘s invention of the printing press caused intellectual decline. Additionally, Weber tries to prove the proximity between Web 2.0 and plagiarism by stating that plenty of web portals and social networks are copies of American originals. But claiming that users of such a copy are more likely to plagiarize appears to be a bit farfetched, too.

Weber also mentions further reasons for the increase of plagiarism that go beyond blaming only the internet and new media. For example, he mentions that some universities do not teach introductions into academic working methods or teach them wrongly. Another interesting reason noted by Weber is that studying at universities has become a sort of CV management. Studying itself has become less important while the managing of achieving certain titles by simulating competence is becoming the main task for students. But he also claims that some students are lazy or too dumb and therefore plagiarize and he tries to prove these assertions by showing a few examples from internet forums citing students who are searching a way to reduce their work. But lazy students have always existed and giving single forum-extracts is neither a way to show that this really leads to plagiarism nor does it show that students of today are lazier because of the internet.

Furthermore, Weber gives a good indication to what is often forgotten when we talk about Google and its official aim to „organize the information of the world.” Weber mentions that Google just organizes the digital world’s information. So, if we only rely on knowledge transferred by Google, we will probably miss out on a lot. Weber also doubts the benefits of Google‘s book scanning project Google Books. The availability of a lot of texts online makes it possible to penetrate them by scanning and superficial browsing and as a consequence this could reduce reading competence significantly because it is just not necessary anymore to read and understand texts as a whole. Thus the scanning project of Google could be a real threat for the book as a medium. But he also criticizes Google Books because it enables plagiarism by supplying texts, although they could not be marked and copy-pasted, the texts could at least be written off. But that is not a problem of Google Books or the internet, writing off has always been possible—also from paper books.

Weber points out that the culture of plagiarism also spills over to journalism and arts. He complaints about journalists who use information they gather from Google to simulate their competence in regards of the issues they are dealing with. In this way they do no longer have to do classical investigation. But for me the question is if this changes the facts that are provided to the audience. If the information found on Google is the same as the information the journalist received by local research it does not change what kind of knowledge reaches the audience eventually. But Weber points out an interesting effect as a consequence of the use of Google by journalists. They lose their function as Gatekeepers which is now executed by the Google-algorithm.

According to Stefan Weber, the intensified usage of Google and Wikipedia builds the base for a generation of students that will be incapable to read and comprehend texts. This principle of not capturing full content and just using texts partially and superficially causes problems for the academic system. In Weber‘s view a new culture of simulating competence emerged that has started to replace the prevalent culture of academic practices and knowledge. This „culture of hypocrisy,“ as Weber calls it, flourishes in a milieu of technology- and media optimism that can be found in media studies circles. That is another important and striking aspect of Weber‘s book. He consistently criticizes media- and cultural studies because he is of the opinion that they follow a paradigm that does not leave any space for a critical opinion on the increasing digitalization. He refers the uncritical position existing in the media studies to certain myths dominating them. One myth, for example, is the hidden technical determinism, which means that technology is always emphasized as something mankind has to follow. Weber does not like this idea of technology as an almost auto-poietic system that operates completely independent of human beings. His opinion is that we should not forget that humans produce and control the technology. Another example is the myth, most central to Weber, which says that current media studies consistently disagree with all positions that take negative consequences of New Media usage into consideration.

Weber criticizes cultural studies and the media itself for supporting this development with something Weber calls „bullshit PR.“ He uses a definition of bullshit from Harry G. Frankfurt who called it a discursive strategy to maintain everything you want to. In Weber’s opinion cultural studies and constructivism provide an academic background for the new text culture of plagiarism and stupidity. In Weber‘s view constructivism builds a fertile ground for plagiarism by questioning the idea of an author. Constructivists legitimize plagiarism by declaring the idea of authorship to a social construct. The cultural studies supply the „culture of hypocrisy“ because they do something, which Weber calls „Mickey Mouse science”. That means that during the last years a lot of cultural scientists did qualitative researches that in Weber‘s eyes did not gain any knowledge and were open for any kind of result or „bullshit.“ By using „soft“ methods and choosing research themes of which the outcome is already clear the cultural studies in their today‘s shape support the emerging change of our knowledge culture.

Moreover Stefan Weber claims that the extensive use of the internet is a menace to our existing language culture. He is of the opinion that trends like „weblish“ and „cyber talk“ can become a real danger for the written language, especially in science. He accuses media and cultural studies again for being to optimistic towards enhancing mediatisation and for ignoring studies that show negative outcomes of it. Weber also emphasizes on the education of adolescents who are confronted with an growing amount of media. His opinion is that this has more negative implications than positive ones. Furthermore, he mentions the lack of critical emancipation of the new media users. During the 90s there was the hope of democratization and informational independence that would result in a critical publicity, but these ideas have vanished and Weber concludes that we mostly use new media for its own sake.

Stefan Weber‘s book is an interesting work, which encourages the reader to think about the increasing spread of new media in all parts of our lives. He warns us to keep in mind that digitalization and mediatisation can also have negative outcomes, which should be examined by media scientists. Weber tries to fight for appropriate methods in the academic world, which are threatened by the increased ‘Googlization.’ Unfortunately, Weber weakens his own argument because in my opinion he does not follow the strict academic demand he postulates throughout his own book. The whole work is written very emotionally and the reader sometimes gets the impression that it is Weber‘s personal campaign against plagiarism. His criticism on cultural studies and constructivism appears polemical and it does not seem to follow scientific rules too strictly, although his points may be advisable. According to this, he often uses single examples he has found somewhere in the internet. He for example demonstrates the laziness of students with one extract of a forum. A further example of this practice is his proof of the decline of language, Weber shows extracts from the internet showing gross samples of „Weblish“ and then concludes that this is a severe threat to the written culture. At another point he criticizes mobile phones because they provide a good opportunity to cheat during exams. This seems to be a bit pedantic, cheating has always happened and before mobile phones existed students used cheat sheets. So this is not a good example of how new media can be a threat to our knowledge and academic system.

In spite of this criticism, The Google-Copy-Paste Syndrome is an alarming book that reminds us to stay critical towards new media. Because, as Stefan Weber states correctly, by being too optimistic and uncritical, the scientific world looses its power of interpretation and leaves the cultural development regarding media to the technology and entertainment industry. The book is a like a thorn in the side of media studies telling us not let go our capability of criticism concerning internet, digitalization and new media.

An interview with Stefan Weber in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

http://www.faz.net/s/RubCF3AEB154CE64960822FA5429A182360/Doc~E8E6AE7133D524A489ECAE90CB0B2558A~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html

List of Stefan Weber‘s publications:
http://www.kfj.at/publikationsliste-stefanweber.htm

An interesting article concerning this issue by Nicholas Char:
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

German Wikipedia site about Stefan Weber:
http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stefan_Weber_(Medienwissenschaftler)

Heise website about „The Google Copy Paste Syndrom“:
http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/buch/buch_25.html