The internet, towels and trawlers
For reasons that have more to do with absurdity and randomness and less to do with logic or, indeed, the number 42, May 25 was Towel Day, the annual celebration of the life and works of Douglas Adams (1952-2001).
Besides the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently novels, Adams was a frequent writer on matters technological (well, as frequent as his innate deadline-dodging would allow, anyway). He was a tireless evangelist for the Apple Mac in those dark days when the company was considered a dying, if not already dead, duck and sales of its products as well as its share price seemed permanently mired in the swampy foothills of the overmighty and all-conquering (it seemed then) Everest that was Microsoft. But Adams lived long enough to see the second coming of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1996 and the launch of the company’s fortunes with the iMac two years later.
It’s appropriate that, according to the official Towel Day website, most of the celebrations that didn’t include the carrying of, the wearing of or other, ostentatious use of a towel were mainly involved with blogging, twittering and other webby activities, not all of which involved Stephen bloody Fry.
Appropriate, because in 1999 Adams wrote a highly prescient article for the Sunday Times, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet. Way before the advent of “Web 2.0”, of Facebook, YouTube, Blogger and Twitter, he foresaw the future of the internet was interactivity and that the dauntingly technical names that were then (and still are) given to these nascent activities were merely “cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them”.
We lost these elements in the 20th Century, he said, because of the rise of non-interactive media, such as cinema, recorded music, radio and television. These became so prevalent, we forgot that, apart from the printed page, most media (particularly in entertainment) was interactive. A riot broke out at the premiere of Stravinski’s The Rites of Spring on May 29, 1913. Various works of art have been attacked, both physically and verbally, for perceived slights of social mores or for political or religious reasons. English theatre, from Shakespeare’s day right up until the newly enfranchised middle classes took hold of it in Victorian times, was often a cacophonous experience, with the audience regularly shouting at the actors, chatting among themselves and showing their displeasure by throwing whatever came to hand or with the occasional riot.
Even the printed word can attract some interactivity, albeit at a distance, as anyone can testify who has borrowed a book from their local library, only to discover some disgruntled previous borrower has heavily underscored often bafflingly chosen words and phrases and left pertinent remarks in the margins.
Throughout the 20th Century, though, such backchat became not only rude, but essentially pointless, especially at film screenings. Social pressure has already seen to any form of spontaneous audience reaction other than that demanded by the script or the score and while listeners and viewers are perfectly free to talk back to the radio or television, it is mere whistling in the winds of technology.
But the internet has changed all that, as Adams pointed out. Or rather, it has changed it back. Suddenly, backchat from the stalls – interactivity – became possible, even expected, and all in real time, too. A national newspaper columnist can expect that within a minute if their words being posted online to have a response.
But what Adams pointed out in 1999 still applies. “So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone.”
But even those whose work appears online still don’t get it. As recently as February this year, Hugo Rifkind, Times columnist and the Spectator’s “resident whimsyist”, in an article tellingly entitled “I’m not saying that anyone who ever posts an internet comment is nuts. But…”, wrote about those who commented on his articles: “I don’t mean to be abusive here. I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody who comments on an article, ever, is sitting at home in their pants, tinfoil on head, basically being batshit doolally. I’m just saying it worries me. Pretty much any journalist I know would say the same. I know of one who describes the comments below her articles as ‘the bottom half of the internet’, which pretty much captures the sort of distaste we’re talking about here.”
Rifkind’s bafflement seems to stem from a belief that “Them” – ie, his readers – shouldn’t even countenance answering back quite so forthrightly and downright cheekily to “Us” – the commentators. I won’t go into the mindset of a person in today’s public sphere who is still puzzled by this, but it betrays an essential inability to grasp what this internet thingy is all about, something Adams mapped out lucidly a decade ago:
“Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.”
It is this inability to grasp what the internet fundamentally is, and just as fundamentally what it is not, which I think lies behind most of the print media’s problems with coming to grips with it, both editorially and financially.
For well over a decade, the print media has embarked on its own, so far unsuccessful, search for the Holy Grail of the Internet, the one they just know is out there but which always, when seemingly within their grasp, vanishes at the merest touch.
If only they could find that Golden Paradigm, to use that annoying buzzword popular among politicians, company wonks and mediacrities. Well, not using the word “paradigm” when “model” would do would be a small start, but if you want a paradigm of the internet, might I suggest a metaphor from a footballer, talking about something else, that is as useful as any:
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
The speaker is, of course, Eric Cantona, and this gnomic utterance after the famous Selhurst Park “kung-fu” incident in 1995 was greeted with equal amounts of bafflement and mirth by the nation’s sports hacks.
Regardless of what football’s premier philosopher meant at the time, it strikes me as a useful if not perfect metaphor for how the internet works.
Websites of whatever stripe and hue are mere trawlers out on the vast, bountiful main. The following they attract – and the subsequent revenue and/or kudos they gain – depends on the sardines they cast overboard.
Adams saw the trawler, the seagulls and sardines as essential parts of the whole internet model. Those who don’t get the internet, such as Rifkind, can’t see the point of the seagulls with their flapping and squawking and would rather they were out of it altogether.
I fancy Rifkind would make a useless trawlerman.