critical reading for the rude

re: web 2.0: the sleep of reason

I haven’t read every blog response to Michael Gorman’s recent two-parter about why Web 2.0 is bad for us (“It is this latter way of learning [learning through interaction with the human record, that vast assemblage of texts, images, and symbolic representations that have come to us from the past and is being added to in the present] that is under threat in the realm of digital resources.”)… so others may have said this first, but something immediately strikes me as wrong here…

And that is, Gorman is using “Web 2.0” tools, his blog at, to criticize the blogosphere (hotbed for “the cult of the amateur”) without any hint whatsoever of tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecation, or irony. He’s taking his blog seriously without taking “blogs” or “blogging” seriously as a useful tool. Why ought we to take his blog as seriously as he does? Maybe because, as his bio says, he was a Dean, and a President of ALA, and a guy with stately gray beard… surely that counts for something.

To be fair, I reckon he makes some very sound points. Witness:

Some go even further—witness a comment on Mr. Lanier’s essay on the Edge website (it appears to be by John Brockman, but the citation is murky):

Now, another big idea is taking hold, but this time it’s more painful for some people to embrace, even to contemplate. It’s nothing less than the migration from individual mind to collective intelligence. I call it ‘here comes everybody,’ and it represents, for good or for bad, a fundamental change in our notion of who we are. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of person.

Leaving aside the understandable tendency to reject this as an extreme example of technophiliac rambling (despite its evocation of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), there is something very troubling about the bleak, dehumanizing vision it embodies—this monster brought forth by the sleep of reason. Is the astonishing spread of computer technology to change not just our society and personal lives but also the very nature of human intelligence?

Well. Maybe so. There is a smell of conformity and utopianism hanging around 2.0 folks. Read boingboing for long enough, and it’s pretty clear that there’s a line of well-polished cool connecting Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Warren Ellis, Xeni Jardin… and you’re either in or you’re out. If your Patton Oswalt you’re in. If you’re Charlie Stross, you’re in. It’s a closed, hypo-celebrity blog-centered social network. And it sometimes smells more than a little of Lanier’s “digital maoism” to me too. The cool folks in that network produce great work, and often have really bright ideas — which is why the millions keep going back to their blogs, and to boingboing. But the ideas reference each other… something solid is there being built.

Other of his points are sound.

That bit about changing the nature of human intelligence? Yeah, prob’ly gonna happen. The various shades of transhumanists have been going on about for nigh on twenty years. The Singularity is near, MG. And, yes, it may be scary as hell for the unprepared. Concerned about academic authority? Your book, your “machine”, and you are all going to be one weird fuzzy thing — a blogject type of thing. A spimey type of thing. A kirkyan, stellyan, triblyan type of thing. See that? The blogosphere is giving us new language so that we can describe (and therefore imagine, and therefore create) the coming world. The world that leads to Singularity? Or past it? Scared yet?

By blogging (even at the good ole Britannica site), Gorman is already pushing his digital personomy out ahead of him — letting his ideas, his (authoritative?) opinions run on ahead of what he claims to value so dearly: print culture, authority, closed editorial boards, academic specialization, singular (if not isolated) lines of argument, independence, and, indeed, even scholarship. He’s getting all hyperlinked, cross-referenced, tagged with folksonomic metadata. He’s becoming 2.0 whether he likes it or not.

Or something like that. And if he saw that, and acknowledged it, I’d have a lot more respect for his testy views of the future.

But, hey, I don’t know the guy.

UPDATE: In the continuing story of Michael Gorman, Web 2.0 critic, dancing his ideas into the glittering blogosphere, I must say that I do most heartily agree (also!) with this passage:

The fact is that today’s young, as do the young in every age, need to learn from those who are older and wiser; they need to acquire good habits of study and research; and they need to be exposed to and learn to experience the richness of the human record. Pretending that the Internet and the Web have abolished those eternal verities is both intellectually dishonest and a proposal for cultural suicide.

…As long as Michael Gorman doesn’t come after me with sharpened catalog cards for not quoting his post in full…

Let’s us not throw Michael Gorman out with the bathwater, folks!


June 25, 2007 - Posted by | blogs, info sci


  1. “…it’s pretty clear that there’s a line of well-polished cool connecting Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Warren Ellis, Xeni Jardin…”

    *Oh come on, we don’t need “Web 2.0” for that. That’s three sci-fi writers and a radio tech journalist. You ever heard of “science fiction”? Michael Gorman probably hasn’t heard of it either.

    “It’s a closed, hypo-celebrity blog-centered social network.”

    Yeah, unless they use Technorati, in which case it takes maybe 45
    seconds to show up on your doorstep and explain the obvious.

    Comment by Bruce Sterling | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  2. Ah… so. Chairman Sterling has appeared just in time to point out the obvious.

    Comment by woody3 | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] act librarian gagging how to prove Michael Gorman right June 27th, 2007 Recently writing about why Michael Gorman didn’t quite get it right with his Britannica blog post about Web 2.0, I […]

    Pingback by how to prove Michael Gorman right « Ghostfooting | June 27, 2007 | Reply

  4. What do you expect from a guy who gives himself a nice little ‘gold’ star at the beginning of every. single. one. of. his. paragraphs?

    Comment by DBL | May 24, 2009 | Reply

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