Debates over the Internet Bring Out the Inanity

Categories: Tech
The Internet conundrum is so difficult that it, like all difficult problems, has tended to attract people who don't want to address it, but to oversimplify it and then fight full-tilt for whatever far-end-of-the-spectrum "side" they've chosen.

This is true of all complicated matters of public concern. Since the economy tanked, the fight over how to address it has been dominated by the "government always bad" people on one side and the "eat the rich" people on the other. They're all crazy, but they're leading the debate.

The "Internet conundrum" is how I've taken to referring to the fact that, while the Internet is perhaps the most revolutionary technological advance of our age, and has created all kinds of wealth and opportunity, it also presents a whole bunch of problems we have to deal with, or at least acknowledge.

The loudest debates over the Internet have to do with the media business. On one "side" are the undiscerning advocates of all technological change. These are the buzzword-wielders who might be best represented by parodies of them. They are reliably, rabidly anti-institutional and pro-amateur. For these people, the Internet's mostly welcome capacity for removing barriers to entry for various professions (publishing, journalism, design, filmmaking, etc.) becomes a reason to deem every instance of amateurism as praiseworthy. So, just for example, when somebody tweets something that makes the news, that person becomes a "citizen journalist." And by the way, did you know that writers no longer have the "right" to make money? Damn!

But the other "side" isn't any better. It's hard to believe, nearly two decades into the Web era, that people like John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, are still making arguments like this one.

MacArthur has some serious, valid points to make about the downsides of Internet publishing, and about the ridiculousness of some of his intellectual opponents. But he proceeds to wreck his argument by turning the essay into a wholesale diatribe against the Internet as a medium. It's worth a read, if only for the entertainment of watching the cliches pile up.

The lunacy begins early on, when MacArthur calls the Internet not "much more than a gigantic Xerox machine." And he asserts: "Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals -- why buy a copy or pay for permission to reprint when you can copy one article or photo cheaper on a machine multiple times?"

Need these assertions even be countered? Aside from the pure goofiness of comparing the Internet to a Xerox machine ("albeit with an inhuman 'memory'" is his lone caveat), since when did photocopying become the bane of the publishing industry? This is like a radio executive, in 2012, warning against the dangers of television.

Somehow, MacArthur decided that the insane valuations of Internet companies during the dotcom boom are related to the fact that publications decided to post their content for free, which is somehow related to the superiority of publishing on paper, which in turn is somehow related to Internet piracy. (MacArthur supports a law like SOPA, which even many of the most conservative of Internet thinkers saw as inherently flawed.)

And this is all related to ... free trade. Here's MacArthur:

Only ideological radicals like those at The Guardian, in England, openly tout the end of print, this while they continue to lose millions of pounds every year on their huge online overhead and free-content model.

Yes, I said ideological. And I don't mean left or right. But the Internet boosters are ideologues nonetheless and I've finally come up with an analogue in the political world to measure the ferocity of their ideological commitment.

I've recently come to realize that the Internet huckster/philosophers are first cousins -- in both their ideology and their sales tactics -- to the present-day promoters of "free trade."

The Internet "idea" of universal, democratic and free access to "content" unhindered by borders or fees corresponds with the 19th Century British economist David Ricardo's and political theorist's Richard Cobden's notions about a tariff-free world in which all people produce what they're best at, and as a consequence won't be motivated to start wars because they're so justly compensated for their labor.

Yes, he really did use all those scare quotes, as if to signal, in case his words weren't enough, that he really, really wanted his essay to be labeled "inane."

Let's forget the strained effort to compare the idea of free content to the idea of free trade. And lets forget the total mischaracterization of what is, after all, a pretty well settled question among serious economists (free trade works best, but of course there are all kinds of complications that make real-world implementation difficult; also, do we want people to produce what they're worst at?). Let's instead marvel at this rabidly ideological argument -- ideological to the point of insensibility -- that decries "ideological radicals" like "those at The Guardian."

And finally, let's enjoy MacArthur's conclusion, keeping in mind that he's addressing graduate journalism students:

I have examples of successful alternatives to the Internet publishing model, but I don't have a solution to the crisis. I can only make some suggestions. Such as don't write for free. This is becoming nearly impossible, but you should really think about it.

Put up paywalls on blogs, if you must blog, for pennies if that's all the market will bear. But at least hold fast to the principle that writing is work, that writing has value, and that writers should be paid. True, I didn't get paid to write this but I'm going to translate this speech into French for a speech I have to make in Montreal in September, for which I will be paid.

That's how it ends. It amounts to a 4,500-word scream that the universe is unfair, and by the way, you should put a paywall on your blog.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others. Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Ok...MacArthur was being a bit over the top, but he does have a good point. Most publications that have had niche content, from finance to local news, that have not made their stuff free onlline, and have in fact been aggresive in making sure it was not free, have actually done very well, and grown sizeable revenue from the paywall and print retention. Granted though, it is a pretty limited list. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the FT, WSJ, Boston Courant, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Columbus Tribune, Newport Daily News, Omaha World, allnovascotia, New York Times, The Economist, Harpers and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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