A class of tech gurus are intent on ‘disrupting’ old-fashioned practices like asking us to pay for valuable content
Like every other era, the internet age has its own class of booster gurus. They are the “cybertheorists”, embedded reporters of the social network, dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves.
Cybertheorists’ jargon often betrays an adolescent hatred of the world in which they find themselves. Jay Rosen, a prominent “future of news” cyber-guru, takes care at every opportunity to sneer at publishing institutions by pasting to them the epithet “legacy”: “legacy newsrooms”, “legacy media”. Another favourite cyber-adjective is “disruptive”. For most of us, disruption is annoying, but for cyber-swamis the more disruptive of established practices technology becomes, the more exciting it is.
Another new-media cyber-quack, the journalist Jeff Jarvis, wrote in his 2009 tract What Would Google Do?: “Education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption.” (The tone of resentful loathing is cyber-typical.) What form might such exciting disruption take? The start-up Coursera, for one, promises to transform university teaching by offering lectures on snippets of web video and getting students to mark each other’s work. If you are a cybertheorist, this wheeze is a brilliant plan to leverage peer networks; if you are anyone else, it’s a brilliant plan to offload more of the labour of education on to the learners.
Another purported quality of Coursera is that it is “open”, as everything must now be. The cyber-credo of “open” sounds so liberal and friendly that it is easy to miss its remarkable hypocrisy. The big technology companies that are the cybertheorists’ beloved exemplars of the coming world order are anything but open. Google doesn’t publish its search algorithm; Apple is notoriously secretive about its product plans; Facebook routinely changes its users’ privacy options. Apple, Google and Amazon are all frantically building proprietary “walled-garden” content utopias for profit.