OCTOBER 12, 2011
Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live
By Jeff Jarvis
(Simon & Schuster, 263 pp., $26.99)
In 1975, Malcolm Bradbury published The History Man, a piercing satire of the narcissistic pseudo-intellectualism of modern academia. The novel recounts a year in the life of the young radical sociologist Howard Kirk—“a theoretician of sociability”—who is working on a book called The Defeat of Privacy. Building on “a little Marx, a little Freud, and a little social history,” Kirk posits that “there are no more private selves, no more private corners in society, no more private properties, no more private acts.” (And, according to Kirk’s sardonic wife, “no more private parts.” She finds her husband’s books “very empty” but “always on the right side.”)
One cannot fault Kirk for thinking too small. He is trying to prove that “sociological and psychological understanding is now giving us a total view of man, and democratic society is giving us total access to everything. There’s nothing that’s not confrontable. There are no concealments any longer, no mysterious dark places of the soul. We’re all right there in front of the entire audience of the universe, in a state of exposure. We’re all nude and available.”
Occasionally Kirk practices what he preaches—his sociology class is invited to see his wife give birth—but he hates it when his own privacy is violated. When a student (who is also his lover) reads his book manuscript, he protests that it is private. He is furious when another student, in a desperate attempt to document the professor’s promiscuity, starts chasing him with a camera.
Public Parts—the second book by Jeff Jarvis, the Internet’s loudest guru—reads like a glib, half-baked sequel to The Defeat of Privacy, produced by an older and more conservative Howard Kirk, who has swapped his tweed jacket for a tuxedo and his smoking pipe for an iPhone. Jarvis’s intellectual heroes are different from Kirk’s, and the latter’s hippie lingo is replaced by business-friendly clichés, but the message is the same. With a little Habermas, a little Arendt, and a little media history, Jarvis argues that “if we become too obsessed with privacy, we could lose opportunities to make connections in this age of links.” Privacy, he argues, has social costs: just think of patients guarding their health information instead of sharing it with scientists, who might use it to find new cures. For Jarvis, privacy is the preserve of the selfish; keep too much to yourself, and the “Privacy Police” may pay you a visit.
Why are we so obsessed with privacy? Jarvis blames rapacious privacy advocates—“there is money to be made in privacy”—who are paid to mislead the “netizens,” that amorphous elite of cosmopolitan Internet users whom Jarvis regularly volunteers to represent in Davos. On Jarvis’s scale of evil, privacy advocates fall between Qaddafi’s African mercenaries and greedy investment bankers. All they do is “howl, cry foul, sharpen arrows, get angry, get rankled, are incredulous, are concerned, watch, and fret.” Reading Jarvis, you would think that Privacy International (full-time staff: three) is a terrifying behemoth next to Google (lobbying expenses in 2010: $5.2 million).
“Privacy should not be our only concern,” Jarvis declares. “Privacy has its advocates. So must publicness.” He compiles a long and somewhat tedious list of the many benefits of “publicness”: “builds relationships,” “disarms strangers,” “enables collaboration,” “unleashes the wisdom (and generosity) of the crowd,” “defuses the myth of perfection,” “neutralizes stigmas,” “grants immortality ... or at least credit,” “organizes us,” and even “protects us.” Much of this is self-evident. Do we really need to peek inside the world of Internet commerce to grasp that anyone entering into the simplest of human relationships surrenders a modicum of privacy? But Jarvis has mastered the art of transforming the most trivial observations into empty business maxims.
In one respect—his unrivaled ability to attract attention to his diva-like self—Jarvis has outdone even the fictional Dr. Kirk. Jarvis’s public parts are truly public: his recent battle with prostate cancer has become something of an online Super Bowl, with Jarvis tweeting from the operating table and blogging about the diaper problems that followed. And like the fictional Kirk, Jarvis likes his privacy when he likes it: the evangelist for publicness does not want his credit card numbers, his passwords, his e-mails, his calendar, his salary, his browsing habits, or his iTunes playlist made public. The digital disclosure of such things is off-limits for Jarvis—but not because of a scruple about privacy. He prefers to justify such immunities by appealing to other rights, fears, and concerns: he won’t share his passwords out of a fear of crime; or his calendar, because he is a busy man and doesn’t want any more commitments; or his salary, because of “cultural conventions”; or his iTunes playlist, because, well, it’s too trivial.
HAD JARVIS WRITTEN his book as self-parody—as a cunning attack on the narrow-mindedness of new media academics who trade in pronouncements so pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous that even the nastiest of post-modernists appear lucid and sensible in comparison—it would have been a remarkable accomplishment. But alas, he is serious. This is a book that should have stayed a tweet. Stripped of all the inspirational buzzwords, it offers a two-fold, and insipid, argument. First, a democratic society cannot afford to have privacy as its main—let alone its only—value. Second, the acts of information disclosure—by individuals, corporations, or public institutions—can be beneficial, under certain conditions, to some or all of the parties involved. Jarvis believes that these points are new and original and heroically subversive of the conventional wisdom. Public Parts is meant to be a polemic, but Jarvis has a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with either of his premises. Forced to introduce at least some contention into the book, he has to venture very far from his main themes, opining on the Arab Spring, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the future of the car industry.
A few such diversions are entertaining, but Jarvis cannot joke his way through the banality of his book’s central argument. Here is Jarvis at his most typical: “Memo to doctors, lawyers, and manicurists: You’d better be online and public.” What an incredible insight, in 2011: an online presence can help your business! Or consider this breakthrough in marketing theory: “If you are known as the company that collaborates with customers to give them the products they want, you may end up with more loyal customers.” Better products boost customer loyalty! Such bland pronouncements make Public Parts sound less cutting edge than the 1996 edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Web.
Jarvis’s sloppy discussion of privacy is emblematic of his overall approach, and so it merits a closer look. There are certainly strong arguments to be made about privacy’s often perverse impact on national security or economic growth or the richness of public life, and many of those arguments have already been made. Instead of familiarizing himself with the work of leading contemporary critics of the unthinking celebration of privacy—scholars such as Amitai Etzioni, Richard A. Posner, Richard Wasserstrom, and others—Jarvis prefers to arrive at many of their conclusions on his own, losing much intellectual sophistication along the way, not least by failing to address any of the counterarguments that have been raised in response to their work. It would be hard to exaggerate the intellectual laziness of this book. When he is not re-phrasing the obvious, Jarvis churns out ideas that he believes to be fresh and brilliant but turn out to be stale and boring and old. Entries for “privacy” and “public sphere” in any decent encyclopedia will note that there are no good definitions for the former and that the English translation of the latter is problematic, but for Jarvis such “insights” pass for original thinking. His vision of a world where “the people formerly known as consumers can move up the design, sales, and service chains to say what they want in a product before it is made” looks pale and dated compared with the original idea of “user innovation” theorized by Eric von Hippel in the mid-1980s.
Whenever Jarvis assumes the role of a cultural anthropologist, Public Parts turns from a really bad book into a really embarrassing one. Take his perverse fixation on Germany. Jarvis is puzzled by what he calls “The German Paradox”—the fact that Germans are at ease inside mixed-sex saunas but vigorously protective of their privacy outside. The Germans’ opposition to Google’s Street View service rattles Jarvis; he takes it to mean that “their heritage is coming into fundamental conflict with internet culture—with the future.” But does it? And what’s so bad about Germans defending their heritage from an anonymous technofuture, in which the likes of Jeff Jarvis hold lucrative stock options? To claim that Germans’ resistance to Google is primarily about privacy, and is the result of their tragic memories of Hitler and the Stasi, one needs to show that other possible explanations are invalid. What if Germans simply do not want to be tyrannized by an American company? What if they do not want a company—any company—to make money by turning their dwellings into commodities? What if they fear cyber-crime, and worry that Google may accidentally record and release their WiFi passwords, as its cars cruise their neighborhoods? Jarvis, who was so keen to explain his own need for privacy by reducing it to other goods and values, doesn’t want anyone else to enjoy the same privilege.
A similar confusion mars his treatment of Finland. He mentions it twice: first, to tell us that Finnish employers are banned from Googling their potential employees and, second, to muse over the fact that in Finland everyone’s salary figures are available online. The latter practice puzzles him, and he attributes it to local norms and culture, emphasizing that the culture he lives in does not approve of such norms. (“When it comes to money, I live by cultural conventions.... I’m not 100 percent public.”) The idea that privacy may be culturally dependent is not new. Back in 1928, Margaret Mead posited that Samoans lacked a sense of privacy—a finding that was heavily criticized by later scholars, who faulted Mead for not being able to understand the ways in which Samoans honor the concept. The case of Finland simply shows that a nation’s respect for both privacy and publicness may depend on the perceived levels of equality, the feelings of solidarity, class distinctions, and many other factors.
You do not have to be a privacy reductionist or a cultural relativist to note that what people are prepared to share is a function of their social and political arrangements, and of the ideologies that those arrangements generate. The existence of such differences does not mean that there are cultures where respect for privacy does not exist. It means only that one needs extensive background knowledge to recognize its precise manifestation in a culture. But Jarvis the cultural anthropologist prefers to act like some naughty American freshman on his first trip abroad. Everything is so weird! These people are naked in the sauna! They don’t want their houses online! The ultimate point of all this playfulness remains unclear, as even Jarvis acknowledges the cultural dependency of both privacy and publicness. In the end all Jarvis can produce is a bizarre concern that Berlin looks too blurry on Google Maps. Well, cultural apocalypse it isn’t. And as long as Jeff Jarvis can get away with not disclosing his income, it seems sensible to embrace pluralism and let Germans and Finns do as they please.
THINGS GET WORSE when Jarvis enters the conceptual minefield that is the theory of the public sphere. Why he feels the urge to opine on these matters remains a puzzle, for this detour out of his depth does nothing to help him champion publicness or defeat privacy. Perhaps Jarvis wanted to assure the critic Ron Rosenbaum—who once challenged him to prove that he had read Hannah Arendt—of his intellectual credentials. Or more likely, Jarvis simply wanted to ride yet again the never-ending “future of media” debate that he has done so much to trivialize.
Whatever his motivation, Jarvis ends up making yet another grand pronouncement: a world that respects and cultivates “publicness” will beget many more publics, giving us a public life that is much richer than what the tyranny of a single monolithic public sphere has produced so far. It is a big thesis, but Jarvis is too impatient to treat it with the intellectual care that it deserves. As with his treatment of privacy, he is mostly indifferent to the existing literature, scholarly and philosophical, on the subject. The Dewey-Lippmann debate, which broached many of these issues almost a century ago, goes completely unmentioned. Bruno Latour’s more recent attempts to produce a political theory that could account for the emergence of issue-oriented and object-oriented publics is nowhere to be seen. All we get are some glimpses of Habermas. Less than glimpses, actually: Jarvis seems to believe that multiple publics appeared only with the emergence of the Habermasian public sphere of the coffeehouses and salons of the eighteenth century, even though Habermas was making exactly the opposite point—that the emergence of the public sphere allowed numerous publics to come together, leave their particular interests behind, and debate on common terms about their shared interests. Misunderstanding this important point derails much of Jarvis’s subsequent analysis of Habermas.
Can people participate in the Habermasian public sphere and still preserve their privacy? Of course they can—as long as they transcend their social or group particularities when they are in it. The reason Habermas emphasizes the “rational-critical” nature of the discourse in the public sphere is not because he looks down on other forms of expression, as Jarvis believes him to do, but because rational argument—rather than, say, dance—was the medium that helped individuals to abstract from their social and political interests and engage with the larger fate of humanity. Jarvis seems unfamiliar with Habermas’s work on communicative rationality and thus prefers to read him through the extremely tedious contemporary debate about “experts” (journalists) and “amateurs” (bloggers). Comically, he ends up accusing the great German thinker of being a smug elitist. This is how Sarah Palin would read Habermas if she could read Habermas.
But even if we grant Jarvis his ridiculous oversimplification of Habermas’s argument, so that a blog becomes the equivalent of a coffeehouse, why stop there? Why not also apply the rest of Habermas’s argument and examine how corporate control of the media could undermine its civic spirit? The Habermasian public sphere had an entire century to develop outside of the market’s logic; but in the case of the Internet, that period of freedom was limited to just a few years in the early 1990s. Neither Jarvis nor Clay Shirky—that other promoter of “Habermas for Dummies: The Web-Only Edition”—wants to grapple with the cultural consequences of the political economy of today’s Web. Instead they make an implicit assumption that today’s Internet companies will somehow prove more benign than all the corporate-controlled media that preceded them. (In a recent essay about Google’s exit from China, Jarvis went as far as to christen Google the “new world’s ambassador to the old world ... [that] represented the rights, security, and principles of the Net to Chinese bureaucrats and hackers.”) But why assume that Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page will be different from Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black? Because they are geeks? Anyone who believes this is under the spell of geek religion.
Most of the narrative tension in Jarvis’s book originates from linguistic confusion over the numerous meanings of “publicness” and “privacy.” How else could one mobilize Arendt to celebrate “public man” and demonize the “private sphere,” when elsewhere in her work Arendt clearly recognizes the importance of privacy—the ability to be “shielded from the public eye,” as she put it—as a buffer against the encroachment of totalitarianism? And to turn Richard Sennett into an apologist for a privacy-less world is to give a very shallow reading to The Fall of Public Man, as well as to disregard his earlier work The Uses of Disorder, which celebrates the anonymity and chaos of city life—a spirit that is antithetical to the highly efficient and transparent Internet that Jarvis recruits Sennett into celebrating. Both Arendt and Sennett were lamenting the blurring of the lines between the public and the private, but Jarvis wants to blur the lines even further.
JARVIS'S STYLE IS itself a measure of what passes for Internet intellectualism. Habermas appears next to German sausages and Oprah and botox and hair extensions. Even Thomas Friedman would be aghast at some of Jarvis’s cheesy sound-bites. “The new American dream is to go viral.” Mark Zuckerberg is “an enigma wrapped in a nerd becoming a mogul.” “Each time you don’t share, a relationship loses its wings.” Jarvis’s habit of restating his banalities at least three times is extremely annoying: we are repeatedly told that “what’s public is public and should remain so,” and “what’s public is owned by us, the public,” and “what’s public is a public good.” And beyond all his vulgarities, Jarvis aspires also to the abstract and the highfalutin’. People do not just co-found companies in his universe; they “co-create” them. The retweet button in Twitter is “a substantiation of the sharing society.” Publicness is “a progression to greater freedom,” an “emblem of epochal change,” “a sign of our empowerment,” “a window on a society’s attitudes towards change and risk, progress and innovation, success and failure.”
It gets still worse. Jarvis contradicts himself every ten pages or so. He acknowledges that the notion of “digital natives”—teenagers who are inherently good with technology—might be a fiction, and then proceeds to quote his 19-year-old son as the ultimate authority on all things Internet. The same Jarvis who likes to boast that he wrote his first book on Google without having much interaction with the company blames Aaron Sorkin for not doing proper research at Facebook for The Social Network. He cites a line from a French politician—that the Internet is an “international space”—to bolster his case that the Internet belongs to the netizens, even though the minister was arguing that, like any such space, it should be subject to international laws and appropriate governance structures. He chides privacy advocates for focusing on edge cases, such as teenagers who are ostracized because their private videos appear online—“this debate tends to be held around the extremes.... edge cases are good at feeding debates but not at informing norms”—but then he proceeds to build the case for “publicness” entirely with edge cases. How normal are Howard Stern, the “New York gadabout” Julia Allison, Oprah Winfrey, and Josh Harris ofWe Live in Public fame? Are any of them “informing norms” that would apply to an unemployed and uninsured single mother from Iowa?
As if to live up to the old joke about an expert being someone who knows more and more about less and less until eventually he knows everything about nothing, Jarvis casts his eye over a gazillion different industries—from cars to airlines and from retail stores to public institutions—but rarely ventures beyond the most obvious analysis anywhere he looks. There are only two pages on WikiLeaks—an oddity in a book on the virtues of publicness—and even those pages are filled with generalities (the WikiLeaks scandal “demonstrated the banality of secrecy” and showed that “government keeps too much secret”). According to Jarvis, Julian Assange is driven by a law that posits that “those who held secrets once held power. Now those who create transparency gain power.” What does that actually mean? Journalists, NGOs, even Google: all of them create transparency in one way or another. But is it true that they now hold more power? What does the WikiLeaks disclosure of all those diplomatic cables imply about the powers lost or gained by the likes of Human Rights Watch, which needs secrecy to work in difficult countries but also needs publicness to make the world aware of those countries’ dire human rights record? Jarvis doesn’t say. If, as a result of legislative changes triggered by WikiLeaks, whistle-blowers end up getting much weaker legal protection, would it mean that they, too, gain power?
THERE IS NOT much consistency in Jarvis’s thought about technology. Whenever he needs to explain something positive, his instinct is always to credit the Internet: it is the one factor responsible for more publicness, more democracy, more freedom. And every time he turns to darker and more difficult subjects—like discrimination, or shame—he announces that they have nothing to do with the Internet and are simply the product of outdated social mores or ineffective politics. In Jarvis’s universe, all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined.
This perverse analytical framework is most pronounced when he criticizes privacy advocates for not wanting to tackle more fundamental problems—such as social stigmas—that are made less severe by invoking one’s privacy rights. Jarvis writes that “a larger fear of sharing health information is the stigma associated with illness. That stigma is most certainly society’s problem. Why should anyone be ashamed of being sick?” He applies the same logic to discrimination based on sexual orientation: “That anyone would still feel shame about being revealed as gay ... is also our failing. If we think that technology is the problem, we risk ignoring the deeper faults and more important lessons.” Yet Jarvis seems blind to ways in which the rhetoric of publicness could be mobilized to distract from finding equally “deeper faults and more important lessons” about the sprawling national security state. “Knowing that no security at all is not an option, what’s your choice: body scans, physical searches, facial recognition via surveillance cameras, more personal data attached to travel records?” he asks—and quickly informs us that he objects to none of the above. He includes this tirade in a section called “publicness protects us”—but he presents no evidence that it does protect us. And why, one might ask, is the choice so stark? Why not entertain the option of extirpating the roots of terrorism rather than investing more money in surveillance technology and embracing “publicness”? It seems that Jarvis wants to fight root causes only of problems such as shame and discrimination; for everything else, there are quick technological fixes.
Jarvis’s understanding of the law is as careless as his understanding of technology. Discussing the proposed “Do Not Track” legislation that would allow users to opt out of online tracking, he complains that “there’s no real need [for it], since users already have tools to stop tracking.” How far can such logic take us? Should we acquiesce to the NSA’s wiretapping of our phones because we can already speak in code? Should we allow dubious food products to be sold in supermarkets because we already have the tools to disinfect them? There may be strong reasons to oppose the legislation, but Jarvis is not interested in exploring libertarian arguments against paternalism or consumer protection. “The problem with regulating ... new technology around the bad things that could happen is that it also cuts off the possible good,” he writes. This is an oft-repeated criticism of the Precautionary Principle, the idea that technologies should be regulated if there is any probable cause to believe that they may be harmful; but Jarvis refuses to discuss it in any more detail, just as he refuses to discuss anything that reeks of public policy, philosophy, or law. It’s hard to say whether he is incapable of discussing such matters or simply worries that they are not the kind of eyeball-grabbing material that he wants for his blog (where many of the ideas inPublic Parts were originally published).
The more of Jarvis one reads, the harder it is to avoid the impression that all he wants is to wow the reader and move on to extolling the next cool technology. Consider his celebration of the nascent “open government” movement, a coalition of geeks and policy wonks who seek to make government information more accessible online. After declaring how wonderful it is, Jarvis makes a passing reference to Lawrence Lessig’s much-discussed argument in these pages that the blind pursuit of government transparency may lead voters to disgust—and then drops the issue almost as abruptly as he mentions it. This aversion to philosophical considerations is deeply irresponsible. Is hypocrisy an inalienable part of the political life in democracies, as Judith Shklar and, more recently, David Runciman have argued? Will efforts to make governments and politicians more open and transparent undermine government and politics? Jarvis never broaches such subtleties. His is a simple world: “outside of war, crime, and protecting the individual, there is no reason for public officials to hide what they know and do from their publics.” What about debates about monetary policy by central banks? Or court deliberations? Should they be streamed online in real time? Jarvis doesn’t say.
Still, he is sufficiently convinced of his opinions to demand the appointment of “publicness czars” who will “represent the interest of the people in openness.” After all, he is the people’s advocate: he knows what the people want, and the people cannot be wrong. In his first book, Jarvis announced that “we no longer need companies, institutions, or government to organize us.” (An exception must have been granted to his publisher, his university employer, and his consulting clients.) Now he is just as forthcoming about his populism. In fact, he would fit right in with the Tea Party:
Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at [the incumbents’] expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say, whether we’re using Twitter to complain about a product or Facebook to organize a protest.
This stuff must elicit a lot of applause from basement-bound geeks. But why not consider the possibility that the incumbents may be using the same tools, Jarvis’s revered technologies, to tell us what to think, and far more effectively than before? Internet shelf space may be infinite, but human attention is not. Cheap self-publishing marginally improves one’s chances of being heard, but nothing about this new decentralized public sphere suggests that old power structures—provided they are smart and willing to survive—will not be able to use it to their benefit. What George Carlin said of the American dream is also true of the Internet dream peddled by cyber-utopians like Jarvis: you have to be asleep to believe it.
FOR A MAN PREACHING digital publicness, Jarvis seems unaware of one of its inevitable consequences: one’s blunders are much easier to find and document. In Jarvis’s case, he cannot help repeating what he has already said in his first book. Jarvis 1.0 writes that “my life is an open blog,” and Jarvis 2.0 that “my life is this open book.” Jarvis 1.0 proclaims that “the link changes everything,” and Jarvis 2.0 that “the link is a profound invention.” Jarvis 1.0 quotes lines from David Weinberger (“An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness”) and Raymond Williams (“There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses”), and so does Jarvis 2.0, and exactly the same lines. (Jarvis 1.0 thinks that Williams’s Culture and Society appeared in 1938.) Jarvis 1.0 builds his arguments around ideas such as the Coase Theory of the Firm and the Dunbar Number—that staple of positive Internet thinking—and so does Jarvis 2.0.
It is not surprising that the two books feature almost identical casts. The list of fellow Internet gurus and believers who make appearances in both books, repeating what they say in every other Internet book, is too long to give in full, but here are Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Don Tapscott, Jay Rosen, Robert Scoble, Seth Godin, Nick Denton, Umair Haque, Arianna Huffington, Doc Searls, John Perry Barlow, Steven Johnson. Alas, Jarvis 2.0 says nothing about Digg.com’s Kevin Rose—whom Jarvis 1.0 proclaimed to be “the new Turner, Murdoch, Hearst—or Oprah,” which is understandable, given that Digg.com tanked right after it received Jarvis’s blessing. Public Parts has its own Digg.com moment, when Jarvis breathlessly celebrates Blippy, an Internet start-up built on the ridiculous premise that consumers want to share details of their credit card purchases. According to Jarvis, “this start-up will blow your mind”—but the only thing that Blippy has blown so far is its investors’ cash. It shut down its flagship service back in May, but you won’t learn this from Jarvis.
An Internet guru would not be an Internet guru if he didn’t make claims that contradict what he has said or written before. Take the subject of Google and its algorithms. Jarvis 1.0 was all about celebrating Google, but Jarvis 2.0 has new friends in Facebook and Twitter. (An Internet intellectual always keeps up.) Jarvis 1.0 wrote that “Google’s moral of universal empowerment is the sometimes-forgotten ideal of democracy,” and argued that the company “provides the infrastructure for a culture of choice,” while its “algorithms and its business model work because Google trusts us.” Jarvis 2.0 claims that “by sharing publicly, we people challenge Google’s machines and reclaim our authority on the internet from algorithms.”
What happened to the dream of Google’s algorithmic democracy that Jarvis 1.0 was so busy celebrating? How did Jarvis 2.0 arrive at the conclusion that “the clearest lesson of the social web is that people want relationships with people, not with brands, spokesmen, rules, robots, voice mails, machines, or algorithms”? (Did we really have to wait until the invention of Twitter to learn that people prefer other people to machines?) To be sure, people change and ideas evolve, and there is nothing wrong with revising one’s views—as long as one is, well, public about it. Jarvis gives a much less respectable impression. He makes it look as if he fell out of love with Google when the venture capitalists he meets and greets at technology conferences fell in love with Facebook and Twitter.
But in one crucial respect Jarvis’s second book is true to the spirit of his first one. The only way to make sense of Public Parts is to read it as a wordy marketing brochure for Jeff Jarvis, the thought leader, the consultant, the international man of mystery. The brochure—a sophisticated signaling exercise—is full of potentially useful information. We learn of Jarvis’s speaking fees (up to $45,000 for faraway corporate gigs) and the e-mail address we should use to propose consulting work to him. We learn that he gets face time with Mark Zuckerberg and that he rubs shoulders with corporate bigwigs at exclusive events (Davos, Rupert Murdoch’s corporate retreat in California, the DLD conference in Munich). We know that he is unlikely to lose a lot of sleep consulting for clients in dubious industries—he is down with the surveillance industry and, at one bizarre point in his book, he even defends Big Pharma. Also he’s got a kid in college. Should we thank Jarvis for being so public? To the extent that his quest for publicness helps to bolster his own clown credentials, perhaps. To the extent that such openness leads us to question his ideas and the ideas of his comrades in the Cyber-Utopian International, certainly. As Jarvis himself writes, “say it once, and you’ve said it forever.”
WERE IT JUST an isolated case of hyperventilating cyber-punditry, there would be few reasons to fret too much about Private Parts. But the oracular Jarvis plays a consequential role in shaping how we see, design, and regulate the Internet. (Anyone doubting his influence should watch a YouTube clip of him hectoring Nicolas Sarkozy about Internet policy at a recent VIP gathering in Paris.) He is in some ways the personification of the Internet intellectual.
Like most Internet intellectuals, Jarvis is the Technology Man—the successor to the History Man of Bradbury’s novel. While the fictional Howard Kirk turned to Hegelianism and Marxism (of the most vulgar variety) to explain everything in terms of the grand and inexorable march of history, Jarvis has another reference point, another sacred telos: the equally grand and equally inexorable march of the Internet, which in his view is a technology that generates its own norms, its own laws, its own people. (He likes to speak of “us, people of the Net.”) For the Technology Man, the Internet is the glue that holds our globalized world together and the divine numen that fills it with meaning. If you thought that ethnocentrism was bad, brace yourself for Internet-centrism.
Does this mean that we should banish the Internet—and technology—from our account of how the world works? Of course not. Material artifacts—and especially the products of their interplay with humans, ideas, and other artifacts—are rarely given the thoughtful attention that they deserve. But the mere presence of such technological artifacts in a given setting does not make that setting reducible to purely technological explanations. “Seeing” the Internet’s invisible hand everywhere is a sure way to lose one’s intellectual bearings. So is opting for unsophisticated Internet-centric explanations simply because they are lucrative, or likely to be celebrated by the technophilic crowd. The global reach of the Internet is no excuse to adopt its standpoint as a universal explanation: this globalism is crassly provincial, and lazy thinking.
Why worry about the growing dominance of such digitalism? The reason should be obvious. As Internet-driven explanations crowd out everything else, our entire vocabulary is being re-defined. Collaboration is re-interpreted through the prism of Wikipedia; communication, through the prism of social networking; democratic participation, through the prism of crowd-sourcing; cosmopolitanism, through the prism of reading the blogs of exotic “others”; political upheaval, through the prism of the so-called Twitter revolutions. Even the persecution of dissidents is now seen as an extension of online censorship (rather than the other way around). A recent headline on the blog of the Harvard-based Herdictproject—it tracks Internet censorship worldwide—announces that, in Mexico and Morocco, “Online Censorship Goes Offline.” Were activists and dissidents never harassed before Twitter and Facebook?
Of course, there is no denying that the Internet alters our ideational and cognitive landscapes. A civilization that prides itself on building a Wikipedia is likely to have certain ideas about democratic participation, cooperation, research, expertise, and human nature. (The title of a 2009 talk by Yochai Benkler, the smartest Internet utopian and in many ways the anti-Jarvis, captures the stakes quite well: “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time.”) The ideas that the Internet begets matter every bit as much as the Internet itself. This is another reason to keep a close eye on Internet intellectuals such as Jarvis: left unchallenged, they may succeed in convincing us that we do indeed inhabit the digital wonderland of their imagination.
But such vigilance is not easy. Our Internet intellectuals lack the intellectual ambition, and the basic erudition, to connect their thinking with earlier traditions of social and technological criticism. They desperately need to believe that their every thought is unprecedented. Sometimes it seems as if intellectual life doesn’t really thrill them at all. They never stoop to the lowly task of producing expansive and expository essays, where they could develop their ideas at length, by means of argument and learning, and fully engage with their critics. Instead they blog, and tweet, and consult, and give conference talks—modes of discourse that are mostly impervious to serious critique. They do write books, of course; but as the example of Jeff Jarvis demonstrates, the books tend to contain almost only the slogans that they have peddled in more lucrative and less rigorous formats. They reject “the best that has been thought and said” for the best that has been blogged and tweeted.
As Chuck Klosterman has observed, “the degree to which anyone values the Internet is proportional to how valuable the Internet makes that person.” Internet intellectuals like to tell companies and governments what they like to hear-including the kind of bad news that is really good news in disguise (you are in terrible shape, but if you only embrace the Internet, all your problems will be gone forever!). Occasionally their gigs are embarrassing—Clay Shirky’s name turned up on the despicable roster of consultants to Qaddafi’s government—but they will take that risk. And the technology companies return the favor: the opening pages of Macrowikinomics—another recent best-seller in the sprawling library of techno-punditry—is peppered with laudatory quotes from the CEOs of Dell, Best Buy, Accenture, Dupont, Nike, Google, and a dozen other companies.
WHY SUCH NARRATIVES are in demand by the general public is more mysterious. It could be that ordinary people find the surreal perplexity of the Internet—the stuff of WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Stuxnet, “Twitter revolutions”—so maddeningly complex and labyrinthine that they are ready to settle for whatever theory or pseudo-theory or theoretical uplift seems to make sense of the puzzling new situation. And what better way to make sense of it all than to claim that the source of their perplexity is in fact a part of some inexorable historical process that has been unfolding for centuries? Most Internet intellectuals simply choose a random point in the distant past—the honor almost invariably goes to the invention of the printing press—and proceed to draw a straight line from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, as if the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the Reign of Terror, two world wars—and everything else—never happened.
The ubiquitous references to Gutenberg are designed to lend some historical gravitas to wildly ahistorical notions. The failure of Internet intellectuals actually to grapple with the intervening centuries of momentous technological, social, and cultural development is glaring. For all their grandiosity about technology as the key to all of life’s riddles, they cannot see further than their iPads. And even their iPad is of interest to them only as a “platform”—another buzzword of the incurious—and not as an artifact that is assembled in dubious conditions somewhere in East Asian workshops so as to produce cultic devotion in its more fortunate owners. This lack of elementary intellectual curiosity is the defining feature of the Internet intellectual. History, after all, is about details, but no Internet intellectual wants to be accused of thinking small. And so they think big—sloppily, ignorantly, pretentiously, and without the slightest appreciation of the difference between critical thought and market propaganda.
Evgeny Morozov is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs). This article originally ran in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.