The Virtual Revolution: Themes and alternative readings
The four programmes of The Virtual Revolution tell the story of the world wide web, but of course it can't really be the story, because there's no such thing as the story.
There's always many different stories that can be told about anything. It is a story (and it my view a pretty good one), and like all stories it is built on underlying assumptions and held together by explicit or implicit themes.
We can take the story at face value and leave it there, but we can always learn more by questioning:
What are the themes?
What assumptions are they based on?
Are there alternatives, and if so, what story would they tell?
Running through the series was a tension between techno-utopianism and techno-dystopianism.
Techno-utopianism – the advent of the web heralds a new golden age – was implicit in many of the stories: the web will solve the problems of Africa (both poverty and violence), will transform education (as witnessed by Korea) and will topple totalitarian regimes such as in Iran.
It was most unambiguously championed by Stephen Fry:
We have the knowledge of the ages gathered for us to browse in our pockets. And if we seriously think that is something we should turn a backs on or sniff at then we really deserve a slapping. This is astounding technology and we should take a moment to celebrate the power, the reach it gives us across time and across ideas and across continents both past, future and present to connect with people
But it was more or less explicit in the contributions of many of the other contributors. Al Gore, for example:
Human civilisation as a whole is now witnessing the connection of people everywhere on earth through this web in ways that actually do mimic the growth of a human brain. And the analogy is imperfect. But it's also real. We are seeing the emergence of a global brain
(Incidentally, this idea of the internet as a global brain was a theme of a former academic at the Open University, Gary Alexander, in his book on eGaia.)
Warnings of a dystopianism future were less in evidence, but in the stories of Programme 3, The Cost of Free, there were clear allusions to the classic techno-dystopia of George Orwell's 1984, though in this case 'Big Brother' wasn't the state, but private businesses like Google.
And then in Programme 4 we heard about some of the fears arising from excessive use of the web by children. Sam Koh Young talked about some of the observed consequences for people in Korea:
If they don't use the internet they feel anxious and unstable. They don't feel satisfied. Their friends don't talk to them any more, and a lot of friction builds up with a relationship with their parents, and those are the consequences over too much internet use.
In Korea there were cases of people using the internet for eighteen hours a day.
Other contributors were sceptical of the utopianism, without necessarily predicting dystopia. This was true of Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen. Andrew Keen was the most outspoken, more cynical that sceptical. Countering the utopian talk of the democracy of the web in Programme 1:
The massive aggregation of new wealth and power are the tiny elite from mainly Silicon Valley.
Though less explicit, another theme running through the series – and indeed in any discourse around the web – is that of globalisation and 'the death of distance'.
In the utopian reading of the web, this is inherently a good thing. While few would find fault in improved communication between distant people, there is an argument that the death of distance means that geography is history, which hints at some more ambiguous implications.
Implicit in some of the narratives of the web is that human geography – the differences between peoples and societies – can be interpreted not as genuine geographic differences, but as people at different stages on a single historical time-line.
Thus, Europe is a few years behind the USA, and Africa is further back still – the time-line invariably has the USA at the front with Western Europe close behind.
This interpretation was evident in Programme 1, where we saw Tim Berners-Lee and Aleks Krotoski visit a community centre in Ghana, and Berners-Lee observes:
It was a little bit like going back in time to when people first came across the web.
When we start to question the stories along these lines, we can uncover even more troubling interpretations. The Western, wealthy, white, Berners-Lee and Krotoski stride among the poor, black, Africans.
Even the Ushahidi story in which the website was created by a black African woman may be read as the Western technology coming to the rescue of a primitive Kenya. Though it seems churlish to question so much goodwill, maybe there's a colonialist theme in there.
Running through the series was often an implicit technological determinism. The technology happens, come what may, and people and society are dragged along with it. For example, in the commentary of Programme 2, it seems as though it is 'the web' itself that's in charge:
… the Web is shifting power, sometimes menacingly, in ways we could never have imagined. It's accelerating globalisation. It's providing us with new allegiances that cross traditional borders, but it's also reinventing warfare and seems to be creating frightening cultural cul-de-sacs.
An alternative view, the social construction of technology, is that technology reflects the people and society, and this was aired by several of the more sceptical contributors, including Lee Siegel in Programme 1:
I think The Web will really take on the contours of what culture has always been. There will be hierarchies, there will be elites. Like all technology the internet is not a cure for human nature, it is an amplification of human nature, both the good and the bad.
Over the four programmes the series covers a vast territory, and the BBC has made available several hours more material from the interview rushes on the associated website. Together this is an invaluable resource for understanding the web, and whatever your own position on the nature of the web: enthusiastic; sceptical; or scared, this material should provide food for thought.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Monday, 8th March 2010
Last updated on: Monday, 8th March 2010
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