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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Am An Agnostic in the Land of Techno-Fundamentalists

Posted By on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 11:00 AM


What is it about technology platforms that makes people feel religious?

For instance, write something -- anything -- about Apple, and you're sure to bring down the righteous wrath of the crazies on both sides of the "question" -- as if whether Apple products are absolute perfection or total shit is actually a "question" in any meaningful sense.

That's why in his 2008 book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, technology writer Farhad Manjoo addressed this bizarre-but-common phenomenon right alongside examinations of 9/11 Truthers and the Swift Boaters of the 2008 presidential campaign. He erred in not emphasizing that Apple evangelists have plenty of counterparts among the Apple haters (you know, the people who say anyone who might own an Apple product must be a "fanboy"), but he was totally right to describe the pro-Apple dogmatists as expressing a "nearly religious zeal for the thing they love."

Except that it's not "nearly" -- the zeal is often just as strong as it is among the lunatic sign-carriers outside Planned Parenthood centers. And it's hardly confined to Apple. I've been writing about technology for most of the past 17 years, and I have seen many iterations of techno-fundamentalism. Back when I started, open source software, the "network computer," and even the Internet itself were defended with the same kind of fervor.

At Wired, where I worked in the mid-90s, whenever anyone in the office mentioned any of the many downsides of the Internet, they would be shouted down and labeled an apostate. I was one of them. I once dared to suggest that the ease of distribution afforded by the Internet to child pornographers might not be a good thing, and then I spent a few days enduring a Mennonite-like shunning that was never fully lifted (of course, everybody at Wired was shunning everybody else in those days for one reason or another). These people insisted against the evidence of their own senses that the Internet didn't ever make bad problems worse, but only solved problems.

A few years later, on The Well, I argued that, while I liked the idea of Wikipedia, I thought it was problematic that anyone could edit entries. There was all kinds of vandalism and bad information being spread around (more than there is now, though it still happens a lot). I thought that was a problem that needed to be addressed, not an uncomfortable fact to be shoved under the shag. I was calm. I was reasonable. I wasn't arguing that Wikipedia needed to be eliminated or that it was all bad. Nevertheless, I was declared a quisling. One particular Well denizen, a well-known Internet person, flew into a rage that was so disturbing I saved his posts in case I, or my next of kin, might need them for some kind of investigation or proceeding.

The free software movement ("movement!") can be even nuttier. One sysadmin who worked for an open-source software company around the turn of the century obliterated everything on the discs of employees who had blasphemed by having Windows installed on their laptops. He replaced Windows with Linux, in the process deleting all of the employees' email and other data. This even though they needed Windows to do their jobs, and it had to be reinstalled anyway.

I once wrote an article concerning open-source operating systems, and Richard Stallman, the notoriously difficult free-software "activist," at first refused to talk to me because he had scanned my email headers and discovered I was on a Mac. (I finally talked him into it by explaining that my Mac was company-issued. The unstated implication being that I would totally have been on a Linux machine if it were my choice. There was no way I would ever have been on a Linux machine, because I couldn't possibly have done my job with it.)

People take similar approaches on the subject of news-distribution platforms. First it was blogs, which, we were informed in the early days, were going to smash the big-media paradigm. On The Well, somebody (hey! it turns out to be the same nut who went ballistic over Wikipedia) said something like that about blogs, and I responded with a question: The New York Times had just published a long series about political prisoners in China. The team of reporters interviewed some prisoners, their families, U.S. officials, and anonymous Chinese officials. They unearthed documents. They provided statistics. The whole thing probably took months, if not years, to complete. How, I asked my troubled interlocutor, could unpaid, lone bloggers ever produce such a thing? He answered that, well, maybe some guy visiting China with his family could have done it. He actually meant it. Such is the nature of religious fervor that all sense and reason is cast aside.

Now that the most widely read blogs are published by professionals, many of them working for the bruised-but-not-smashed "Old Media," platform religion has moved from blogs to social-media. Twitter, in particular. The people who witness for Twitter are particularly buggy. I have written about them plenty of times before. So for now, suffice to say that while I believe Twitter is a powerful tool for disseminating news and information, it also has a lot of downsides: it facilitates the easy spread of misinformation, it's full of jerks behaving jerkily, it's loaded with obsessives (certainly including a lot of journalists) who tweet dozens or even hundreds of times a day and use it to argue and to share every thought that passes through their heads. And etc. The 140-character limit makes Twitter highly useful for sharing links and the occasional pithy comment, but also makes Twitter highly annoying and inane for just about anything else.

In light of all this, Joe Nocera, the New York Times business columnist, has made the entirely rational decision to stay off of Twitter. There's no compelling reason for him to be there, and so he's not there. He notes Twitter's strengths, but says the weaknesses aren't, for him, worth it.

Nor surprisingly, the Twitter fundamentalists were appalled, and expressed their displeasure on Twitter. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, who believes the Internet is better when its festooned with garbage, tweeted: "Joe Nocera claims not to be into twitter, is expert twitter troll." Apparently, "troll" in this case means "doesn't like Twitter the way I do." Gabe Rivera, the CEO ofof Techmeme, mischaracterized Nocera's column this way: "TL;DR I'm awesome, yet I suck at Twitter, therefore Twitter sucks."

Mathew Ingram, who is perhaps the most fundamentalist of the Twitter fundamentalists, who believes the platform shines upon us the golden light of a perfect tomorrow, derided Nocera's "Twitter hate" even though Nocera's column was explicitly not an expression of "hate."

The Atlantic's Rebecca Greenfield addressed Nocera at some length -- four short, nasty paragraphs -- proving that witless adherence to dogma doesn't have to be limited by a character count. First, she accused Nocera of being "trite," then went on to spew a lot of cliches -- and horribly ageist ones, too, with repeated references to Nocera's tooth-length: he's a "cranky old man" and we should "let the old guy be old and fall into blissful obscurity." She derided him for "admitting" that he wasn't on Twitter, and concluded that he therefore shouldn't have anything to say about Twitter because he "doesn't know how to use it."

But knowing how to use Twitter doesn't solve all the problems. I have filtered out a lot of people, but I still see a ton of jerkiness, and Nocera would, too if he chose to take part. You have to filter as you go -- often only after some pallid ninny directs a vile or stupid comment your way. And anyway, from the "blissful obscurity" of the pages of the New York Times, Nocera was explaining why he's not on Twitter. If he were already on Twitter, he would have written a different column.

Nonetheless, Greenfield negated her entire thesis that Twitter "is what you make it," and that people you don't like can be filtered out and ignored, when she wrote that since Nocera's not there, "we can ignore any and all cranky-old-man things he has to say, confining his columns to a closed system, where only people who seek him out will read him. Imagine if this guy got his hands on an account: Then we'd have to listen to his complaining all day, every day. Totally ignorable column-sized doses are a lot easier to handle."

Hamilton Nolan, Gawker's in-house crank, who apparently refuses to write anything unless he can be nasty, bilious, and shallow about it (especially if it concerns the New York Times), took a similar "let's make fun of the old guy" approach to Nocera's perfectly reasonable assessment and also decided it was just so yesterday, daddio. Someone please let me know the next time Nolan makes fun of one of the endless iterations of "Twitter is the best thing ever and it's changing the world" that are constantly being pumped through the fiber.

The thing to remember about religious dogmatists of all kinds: a lot of them tend to be jerks.

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Dan Mitchell


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