Seeing ourselves through the internet

3rd October 2007, Comments 0 comments

Editor Natasha Gunn went to the annual PICNIC conference for the creative industry held in Amsterdam in September. Here are some snippets from a debate on the influence of the digital revolution on our society and feedback from the European Bloggers Unconference.

A. Keen: the internet is a mirror.

Simplifying the world

During a session in which Author of 'Everything is miscellaneous' David Weinberger debates with Andrew Keen, author of 'The cult of the amateur' on the influence of digital revolution on our society, Keen says the media needs to educate, inform and entertain rather than reflect the world; to simplify things rather than make them complex.

In this vein I'm going to attempt to give you, hopefully, clear fragments of what I took home from the event and plenty of links to lead you further.

Described as a professional provocateur, Keen argues that today’s internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy and not "leading us to a democratised paradise" as assumed by some. Of course, "we want people to understand the world politically, culturally, economically, [but] is the chaos of the internet educational? Is it not "undermining credible media?" says Keen who aggressively defends the authority of professionals and experts.

"It doesn't mean that amateurs are worthless, but it means that these [experts] are the people who can really use this technology for everyone's benefit," he says. "We need to manage technology to our benefit."

David Weinberger

Solving the problem of messiness

Disagreeing with Keen, David Weinberger, described by Keen as "professor of philosophy selling the web to you", believes that the web was built to solve the problem of 'messiness'. Human nature drives us to organise the stuff around us, but we will always find one 'miscellaneous' box to fill with things which don't fit.

Weinberger points out that we can use the web to file stuff under various categories, but also use it to search for what matters to us in this great miscellaneous pile, with the help of hyperlinks, which use words to describe where they lead to. Weinberger believes that Knowledge has always been social. He points out that the founder(s) of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger harnessed this tendency through making a publicly editable encyclopedia with the counter-intuitive strategy of using a wiki to reach that goal.

Humans are complex, says Weinberger, who sees the web as reflecting the complexity of human society; giving us the complexity and fallibility that we as humans have through the socialising of knowledge and filtering of ideas. Weinberger feels sites such as Wikipedia offer credibility just because they are willing to announce any lack of credibility, something which for instance, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, written only by 'experts', cannot do. 

He also admits that "authority and trust are far more complex" than the way Keen looks at it. Weinberger believes that it all depends on who we turn to and why we trust them.

"Newspapers admit mistakes but they are embarrassed. Human fallibility makes newspapers less credible," Weinberger says.

Generational changes

He also points out how the web has expanded and grown more human as well as fun to use. The web is not simply the work of experts, "we are doing it for ourselves", says Weinberger, mentioning the success of networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Myspace as examples of our need for 'friendship' webs in a globalising world, which are also indications of generational change.

PICNIC participant Stefana Broadbent, who researches into how people use technologies, says that the biggest change she has noted is "an expectation of being in constant contact – constantly aware of where the people we love are."

Emerging notions of privacy and public-ness due to the development of new technologies are also reflective of a generational change "which will take a generation to work through," as Weinberger puts it.

On this topic, Science fiction novelist, technology activist and co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing ( Corry Doctorow one of the speaker's at PICNIC gave an interesting interview with AP during the conference in which he warns about the threat of the growing warehouses of information being built by European Union mandate as well as private companies such as Google.

European bloggers Unconference

Worth reading is New Media Master student at the University of Amsterdam Anne Helmond's blog on the Q &A session with Corry Doctorow which concerned the business model and commercial side of blog boingboing.

Anne Helmond was one of the fifty blogger from around Europe who participated in the European Bloggers Unconference - organised by the European Journalism Centre. There was a strong representation of bloggers from Eastern Europe and subsequently many of the blogs weren't in the English language. Armenian blogger Anush Babajanyan's blog was notably wordless., which aims to make insightful humanities- related discussions possible over the web. Their video of developer of Logo Logi Manta Wybo Wiersma presenting the site at Fosdem 2007 is revealing and includes why we should forget forums and wikis. – where Transitions Online (TOL) and neweurasia have teamed give a voice "to a region full of countries in dire need of a breath of fresh air alongside their government-controlled media systems"., a site started by students of the Erasmus exchange programme which aims to "create European public opinion". Most of the bloggers on the site are bilingual and the accepted articles sent in by 'journalist' volunteers are translated into several European languages.

Other sites in English include,,,

I'd like to leave you with a question from the PICNIC debate:

'Should we listen to authority or just to anyone – and who is an authority and who is not?'

Here are some responses from participants in the PICNIC conference:

Andrew Keen: "We should defend the authority of professionals and experts. The reality of the internet is that people are rejecting authority. The blogesphere is attacking mainstream media – people are using these constructions to bash mainstream media. For better or worse the internet is a mirror – it shows us ourselves."

David Weinberger: "Yes we should – the experts are on the web, but we also get all these new voices which have different types of credibility. Authority is far more complex and depends on who we turn to and why we trust them. We are getting better and better at it."

Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology Newcastle University: "A teacher that can be replaced by the internet should be. Anyone who can be replaced by a computer or the internet should be. Being human is about not being replaceable by a computer.

"If the internet presents a collective opinion of humanity – and if that opinion is a terrible one - then are we collectively terrible? If most people think some thing is right then what should we do? Should the law change or should we follow what some people think is right?"

We'd be interested in knowing your views on this.

To pick up this thread go to the Expatica discussion forum's Technology section at

If you haven't signed up yet you can do so here.

More information on PICNIC

Video stream of the day I have commented on at PICNIC

Click here to visit the full Picnic video archive.

3 October 2007

Natasha Gunn
Expatica Netherlands

Want to reply? Send your email to 

[Copyright Expatica 2007]


0 Comments To This Article