Commentary Magazine

Press Man: Cyberutopian Cyberloney

“I am a public man,” declares Jeff Jarvis, a blogger, founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, and well-paid consultant to Internet start-ups. How public is he, you ask? I’m not sure you want to know, but here goes. “In September 2009, I had surgery to remove my prostate and its cancer,” he writes in his new book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. “I emerged, as all such patients do—at least temporarily—incontinent and impotent. I shared most every detail of the experience on my blog and, as a result, in print and on TV and radio.” 

Enough? No? OK, what happened was, he had to wear a diaper, which he humorously likens to Baby Huey’s, and there was the catheter, and then after “[his] lack of erection” the doctors prescribed masturbation, and there were pills and various secretions and …

You won’t believe it, but by his own admission Jarvis was once a shy, retiring fellow. So great was his “social awkwardness” in high school that, he writes, “I dare not recall [it] or I will cringe into a small ball.” What changed him into the penis-brandishing tribune of the Internet is the Internet itself, along with all those enticing, glittery gewgaws that have sprung from it: blogs and twitters and YouTubes, Facebooks and flickrs and tumblrs. In the trade these gewgaws are called “tools,” but Jarvis clearly thinks the term is insufficient. In his view, social media are already combining to bring about nothing short of a “reordering of society,” as “Facebook’s norms and Google’s mores start to take on the force of a global culture.” Those norms and mores require us to reveal more and more information once considered private or proprietary, to the advantage of all. Hence the intimate details of Jarvis’s prostate. He brags that the blog post about it received 345 comments. (Everything is back in working order, by the way, in case you were worried.)

His member aside, Jarvis is worth paying attention to. For the cyberutopianism he exemplifies has moved from the goofy fringes of pop chatter to become a working premise among the most successful of our “public intellectuals.” It’s where the dough is in the egghead racket these days. Books with titles like Wikinomics: How Mass Cooperation Changes Everything and What Would Google Do? get published by TV-ready thinkers such as Don Tapscott and Jarvis himself, who then travel to places like Aspen and Davos to persuade wealthy businessmen that the social changes they are seeing (and sometimes overseeing) have never, ever, in any significant way, ever, ever happened before. And the changes, they announce, are cosmically beneficent. A public intellectual needs to leave the businessmen happy.

And he always travels with a few newly invented words as a mark of his seriousness. Jarvis’s most recent one is “publicness.” It means “the act of sharing information” and “an ethic of openness.” If you soak one of these fresh coinages in a little social science, you can slap it like a bumper sticker on ideas that, were they any less vague, would be denounced as cyberloney (that’s my new word). 

I am open to the possibility that the forms Internet communication has taken are altering communication itself; while the medium isn’t the message exactly, it might influence what the message contains and what it leaves out. And anyone who has watched in horror as once-formidable magazine essayists like James Wolcott and Andrew Sullivan steadily dissipate their talents in the dribs and drabs of blogging will be impressed by the Internet’s potential to change the people who succumb to it. 

The public career of Jarvis himself provides evidence of this transformative power, both pro and con. On the one hand, there is his personal makeover from geeky high schooler to Internet guru, a testimonial to the new technology’s alchemical powers. On the other hand, he is something both ancient and familiar, a type that recurs down the centuries. Reading his book, I came to think of him as the Good Time Charley, arms flailing in his checkerboard sport coat and hips swiveling in his sansabelt pants, trying to coax us wallflowers out onto the dance floor: Whassa matter whicha? Let’s get public!

Publicness is for our own good, he assures us, which comes as a relief since it’s also inevitable, he says. Jarvis visits Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, who despite the author’s adoration comes off here (as elsewhere) as a driven, highly intelligent creep. 

“The default in society today still is, ‘OK, I should not share it,’” a frustrated Zuckerburg tells Jarvis. “Some people just assumed that being private is good, and we’ve said no, no, no….” In becoming a sump of personal information, all of it available for sale, Facebook will help “people just be better at being human.”

And we needn’t worry that strangers are accumulating all this stuff for commercial or other self-interested purposes. Google, another essential tool of publicness, takes as its motto “Don’t Be Evil”—separating it, I guess, from all those companies who say they do want to be evil. At once naive and smug, the motto is meant to reassure the customers of a company that routinely scours their e-mail and browsing history for information that it can sell to the highest bidder. Some of us wallflowers get uneasy, with reason. For years Google Street View cars have been passing through neighborhoods taking 360-degree photos for use in Google maps. Last year the world learned that the cars had also been capturing e-mails and passwords from the unguarded Wi-Fi networks of private homes. It was a “screwup,” Jarvis says, a “PR calamity,” but that’s all. Google isn’t evil. It says so itself.

He tells how appalled he was by a German conferencegoer (Jarvis goes to a lot of conferences) who objected when other conferencegoers took his picture and posted it on their websites and Twitter feeds. Jarvis detects a slippery slope. “Would his prohibition next extend to what people said and heard and wanted to share?” he asks. “That impinges on the free speech rights of everyone else.” Nothing can be permitted to stand in the way of the publicness juggernaut—not courtesy, not deference, not fellow feeling. “What’s public is owned by us, the public,” Jarvis says. And if you don’t want to be us, the public, then stay home. Build a firewall around your Wi-Fi. Keep your mouth shut. Draw the blinds.

But is the dispute really a contest of abstract, vaguely defined “rights”—the right to privacy versus the right to free expression, which sometimes requires actions others may take to be an invasion of privacy? I think the dispute is much deeper, much older than that, and much more intimate. 

Cyberutopians like Jarvis insist that no public act can be considered private because they so enjoy making their every private act public. The contest is between the wallflowers, who like to think that a well-ordered society requires modesty, reticence, and discretion, and the Good Time Charleys, intent on enlisting everyone in their own public gyrations, to make us all “be better at being human.” It is an old, old conflict. Only the technology has changed. 

For the moment the Charleys have the upper hand. In the meantime, we wallflowers will take the new technology as it comes, enjoying its dazzling reach and convenience without for a moment believing it will transform human nature or even civilization. Let the gullible hear Jeff Jarvis and believe he’s the herald of a new, wide-open utopia. We wallflowers know it’s just cyberloney. It’s just a guy talking about his tool.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, our press critic, wrote last month about Dick Cheney. His new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, was published in March.

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