This Magazine

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Web 3.14159 — somewhat rambly thoughts

This Magazine Staff

(photo of Dorothy Day at a draft card burning, courtesy of the Culture of Peace website
Here is a poem by THIS mag contributor, Brian Joseph Davis, from his very funny book Portable Altamont (Coach House 2005):
Philip Roth
I never should have trusted you
When you told me that you were
David Lee Roth’s brother.
Davis has an essay in the latest THIS Magazine about Socialism, Internet Style — you know, Web 2.0, social networking, participatory content-making, peer to peer, etc. Go, read it now. It’s interesting.
I might have just read it and filed it with all the many, many other thoughts I’m having about the Internet these days, except after reading Davis I took a big book with me to lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant. It’s called The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and is about four radical American Catholics and how literature shaped their lives. I try to read as much as I can about people way back in the 20th Century — those backward folk who lived without the benefit of e-mail and file-sharing and MySpace — and how they managed to get things done with ancient technologies like telephones and newspapers. Fascinating stuff.
Anyway, at lunch a woman one table away was describing her job to her meal-mate. She runs a social networking site for TorStar, and her talk mirrored Davis’ article almost perfectly– the radical democratizing of content, the opportunity to connect and share and meet and message and make and change and create. What Davis calls “analyzing and editing the raw feed of life.” Except the bottom line for TorStar is about aiming advertising. The information users share with them, the personalities they display online, the preferences they exhibit — these are all used to push commercialism back at them in increasingly subtle ways.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Davis writes in his piece:
Using online applications and being a stakeholder in websites positions a user as part of something else — something like society — in a way that the alienation of everyday life usually keeps that person from attaining.
I’d like to talk a bit about this idea. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. One immediate response is that I question if Web 2.0 really does manage an end-run around alienation. Does it? Society has always provided tools for engagement, both commercial and radical. Dorothy Day, one of the subjects of the book I’m reading, started the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York City, and marched on Washington to demand the vote for women, spending weeks in jail for her radicalism, and winning in the end. I’m pretty sure e-mail and a myspace page could have helped her gather support for her hunger strike, but all the information and communications tech in the world is meaningless without that brave woman putting her body on the line.

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