Sunday Rant - The Internet is Not the Enemy

You know what I'm just so tired of? The idea that the internet is somehow the pinnacle of all that is and ever has been evil. I mean really, honestly, I find this the dullest thing in the world. Journalists, baby boomers, and Shoreditch hipsters in retro T-shirts have all united against an enemy that doesn't exist. Cultural criticism is dead, at least until some brave soul somewhere comes to a conclusion which doesn't rely on the assumption that the world wide web created some sort of massive vacuum that sucked the life out of anyone young enough to have had a computer before the age of 20. I.

Take Camille Paglia's recent Sunday Times Magazine feature on Lady Gaga ("Gaga and the Death of Sex", 12th September 2010). I can't actually link to the article, of course, but maybe you happened to read it. Supposedly it's about how Lady Gaga is "an asexual, confected copycat who has seduced the internet generation."

It's not actually about that. It's also not really about what Paglia dramatically calls "the death of sex". It's not even what it may seem on the surface: a sort of petulant rant that the stars of 20 or even 80 years ago were far superior to the stars of today (Madonna, in particular, fares well - she was "on fire" in her youth and even on her way to the gym impresses the author by being "brutally honest about publicly showing herself in ratty gear with no make-up").

No, it's actually just a tirade against an entire generation of human beings unlucky enough to have been born Post Golden Age.

The implication seems to be that no one who is part of the "internet generation" will actually read the article because a) it's too lengthy, too academic; b) it can't be accessed for free online; and c) they wouldn't know how to respond, anyway. They just wouldn't get it.

So without fear of dissent, Paglia lets loose:

"Generation Gaga," she writes, making the assumption that "the internet generation" (undefined) and "generation Gaga" (also undefined) are the same thing:

doesn't identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga's flat affect doesn't bother them because they're not attuned to facial expressions. They don't notice her awkwardness because they've abandoned body language in daily interactions. They're not repelled by the choppy cutting of her videos (in febrile one-second bursts) because that's how they process reality - as a cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits.

It's a beautifully written and utterly damning piece of criticism, and there's no going back. Having worked herself up into a sweat, Paglia goes on, now frothing at the mouth, wild-eyed and unable, it seems, to stem the flow of hurtful words:

"Gaga's fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media. They have been raised in a relativistic cultural vacuum where chronology and sequence as well as distinctions of value have been lost or jettisoned by politically correct educators."

And there you have it. "America's foremost cultural critic" has spoken.

II.

Or there's this piece, posted by Richard Lea. For four paragraphs (the piece is only five paragraphs long), Lea manages to maintain the illusion that his article is actually about the proliferation of present-tense novels, what it means, and whether or not Philip Pullman was right to call it a "silly affectation".

Are you surprised to find out that it isn't about this? "The internet, mobile phones, Twitter," Lea writes - and my heart sinks - "all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?"

Lea ignores any questions that his statement might raise - can a blog, for instance, not be a reflection? Presumably Lea regards his own post as reflective, after all, although it was published on the Guardian's Book Blog. But one supposes his word count, and therefore his argument, was limited by both the medium of the internet and the alleged attention spans of the half-wits likely to stumble upon the piece.

III.

Then there's this.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by brevity, over-connectedness, emotionally starving for attention…" begins the angry piece on McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Quite possibly it's very funny, with its reference to Ginsberg's "Howl" meant to signify the cleverness of author Oyl Miller.

But, look. You know what this piece actually is? It's not clever, it's not funny, and it's certainly, despite appearances (or perhaps intentions), original. It's just another way of saying OH MY GOD THE SKY IS FALLING BECAUSE THE INTERNET HAPPENED.

The best minds of Miller's generation, apparently, "bared their brains to the black void of new media and the thought leaders and so called experts who passed through community colleges with radiant, prank playing eyes." They "texted continuously 140 characters at a time from park to pond to bar to MOMA to Brooklyn Bridge". "Recession wounded and directionless," they, "sat up, micro-conversing in the supernatural darkness of Wi-Fi-enabled cafes."

The atmosphere of loneliness is palpable. I picture an updated Edward Hopper painting: two figures, back-to-back in a lit-up café, MacBooks open, eyes shut, Red Bull on a plastic tabletop, no traffic outside because we were all too busy being shallow to bother going anywhere.

Okay. I get it. We're missing out on real life because we tweet and we blog. Now can we all for the love of God find something else to write about?

IV.

Of course you might say I'm only writing this because I feel I've been personally attacked. And you might be right. I am, undeniably, of the "internet generation," whatever that actually turns out to mean. Of course, I'm not supposed to have a voice, or even the attention span to write a blog post this lengthy (but actually, I can hear a niggling voice suggest, the intertextuality is really only a crutch for laziness, hyperlinks only a symptom of patchy education!). And yes, I do want to stick up for my generation. I like being part of the internet generation. It's the only generation I know of that doesn't identify itself by age group. I know old people and young people who identify with this depraved group. We're all blogging our lives away together, marooned together in the technocracy. We've created a community in the black void.

And are we really starved emotionally? I don't know. It depends. It depends, frankly, on what that actually means. Like the death of sex, it sounds like a big important thing - emotional poverty! - and might actually be a completely empty phrase. Maybe I'm an exception. I left home early, I support myself (it took me awhile to get there, but I do), I have the capacity to be both trite and reflective using the same medium. And I feel emotionally charged, ridiculously alive. All the time, I feel that way.

So yes, maybe I'm an internet generation anomoly. More likely, we all need to get over the idea that the internet can be blamed for everything on this earth which is vacuous or scary or different than it was twenty years ago. Maybe journalists and cultural critics are just uneasy because the earth is continuing to spin under their heavy feet even though they are getting older and they think they're in danger of losing their jobs (they're not in danger of losing their jobs).

And meanwhile, internet users, particularly young ones, are scared. They've got shouty people telling them how shit they are all the time, and scary sexless ladies gyrating on screens in the other room, and they're being constantly gagged and bound and put on display like apes and then set free again to run in the wretched wild of tangled wires and glowing screens. Guess what? That gets old really fast. Because in case you hadn't noticed (or is this what's actually scary?), we're all grown up now. We can (most of us) read, and write. We earn livings, we pay taxes, we meet up in the pub for a few beers, go out to restaurants and talk to each other one-on-one like everybody else. We fall in and out of love in the same way that people have done for centuries - without grace. We have families, want someday to own a house, know we're crippled by finances and yet continue to imagine that everything is somehow possible.

"There are no dreams in the New Immediacy," Miller writes, which sounds nice and means nothing. No dreams? You think we have no dreams?

Frankly you can go fuck yourself.