IDG: You say the Internet is revolutionary but not utopian. What do you mean by that?
Shenk: I agree with people who say the Internet is going to be a source of change; it will fundamentally change how we communicate, buy things, interact with our government, even possibly how we educate ourselves. Yet we need to distinguish what we see in commercials - that the Internet will make everything radically better - from reality. Digital communication may be more thrilling than traditional communication, but it's not necessarily better. We need to make sure we're not confusing change with automatic progress. Particularly in the US, we tend to be optimistic about technology and change because they've been our friends so many times, but I think there are real trade-offs we're making here. While technology can be a net positive experience, we need to be extra careful to realise that there are things we're giving up. Technological progress isn't an absolute success. By realising that, perhaps we can try to mitigate the loss in some way.
Can you give an example of a technology trade-off?
Amazon.com is a good one. Its convenience is clear. I can go online to order a book, and I'm done in about 90 seconds. To do the same thing at a bookstore usually takes at least 30 minutes. If I keep buying my books online and everyone around me does that, we're going to put our local bookstore out of business. I don't think anyone wants to see that happen because a bookstore is a very nice place to be. It's an important part of the community.
Speaking of community, one of the promises of the Internet is its ability to build communities among people who are isolated geographically. But won't people feel isolated from their physical communities?
That's the paradox of the Internet. It's pretty irresistible to communicate with people without leaving your chair. There's also something thrilling about communicating with people electronically and receiving responses electronically. It's almost a primal feeling. That thrill does tend to absorb people so much that the danger is that they will spend less time talking and interacting physically with people. At the same time, there's something very special about e-mail. It's similar to writing letters, only there's something more immediate about it. I don't want to diminish the importance of e-mail. I spend a great part of my day using it to share my thoughts with others. But I also remind myself that there are people out there. Fortunately, I have a family that will physically yank me out of my chair and make me spend time with them.
At the same time, do you think e-mail, laptops and cell phones compel people to stay connected to their jobs?
That's another unexpected trade-off of technology. Because the workday never really ends, we live in this global, 24-hour work sphere to which we can be connected fairly easily through portable devices. It's hard to let that go. Work isn't just an eight-hour box that you have to leave at the office. If you don't have to leave it, then it can become hard to know what the boundaries between work and home should be.
Is there a positive side to all the portable technology?
Obviously, more people are coming up with all sorts of flexible approaches to work. There are many benefits to that; people get to work at home, spend more time with their families, get to travel and work. Yet, being connected all the time can lead to a feeling of being under an incredible burden sometimes.
You caution that information technology's ability to transfer control from large organisations to individuals is potentially a problem. Why?
We are turning culture and politics and everything about society into a market-oriented system. While that gives maximum control and freedom of choice to the individual consumer or citizen, we are also diffusing power. The result is that there are fewer entities that have the power and control to do something for the sake of the public.
And the danger is a more fragmented society?
It's really more of what I call atomisation. The best example is what's happening in media. Everyone is familiar with the tabloidisation of media. What's driving that trend is all the individual consumer decisions to watch shows like A Current Affair. When those shows put on anything that's sensational, we can't help but watch them. We've used our individual power to vote for this kind of media. It's a trade-off we make.
Yet aren't we just exercising our freedom of choice?
As individuals, we have more power, control and choices, but we're giving up two things. One, life is more complex for individuals in that we have too many choices that are good for us. Second, we have so much control as individuals that we are in essence voting for a society that is increasingly sensational, that caters to people's whims, that doesn't have a whole lot of long-range vision about what's going to be good for us years from now. Everything is based on short-term consumer decisions. That's even how the stock market reacts, which is not how it was built to work.
On the Internet, individual choice is manifested in services like personalised marketing pitches and customised news. What is the danger of such services?
That's another angle as to what's wrong with the atomisation of media. Not only does it lead to tabloidisation and the coarsening of our culture, it also fuels the direction of media toward narrowness. One of the great functions of media historically is to serve as a gen-eral interest venue where people who have fundamentally different backgrounds and perspectives can share a common base of information. Part of our public conversation is the things we've read and the things we've seen filtered through the same media. Now if I spend all of my time seeing a newspaper individually customised just for me with news about certain sports or a rock group I like, I'm going to lose connections I had with other people. No one's going to be reading the same thing anymore.
Yet as people become pressed for time, they're more inclined to subscribe to customised news services because they can't get through all the news. Isn't it a vicious circle?
I can attest to that because I do it. I don't understand information overload better than anyone else, but I've got a pretty keen understanding of it. As a consumer, I find myself overwhelmed with choices. We have to narrow down the information that's streaming into our lives.
You say understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship. Why is it important to understand how technology works?
Citizens have a responsibility to understand how their society works, how government works, who is disenfranchised and what they can do not only to help themselves but to make the world a fairer place. Technology is a part of infrastructure in society - increasingly we'll be transacting our lives through these machines. As the infrastructure we rely on gets more sophisticated, we're going to lose touch with it. In a spiritual sense, we're going to lose our groundedness with the floor we're standing on.
We are not going to understand the machines we use to make phone calls; we're not going to understand how the houses we live in are built, how they're heated or how we get our electricity. Already we live in a very complicated world - one in which we're very distant from the infrastructure of life - but the basic concepts are not that difficult. A lack of understanding explains some of the alienation we feel in modern life.
You mention that we've entered the age of the attention economy, where profits are determined by how much consumer attention companies capture. Why do you think this will lead to a more vulgar society?
Individuals need to realise there's a war going on between the market and consumers. It's a war for our attention and time. The scarce resource is time; we have so many things we can do with it and only so much attention to give. All these companies are battling for it. As individuals, we need to constantly be aware that companies are always trying to get our attention and make money from it. When we pay attention to something, it seems innocuous. We get distracted and click to a site and follow that titillating link, and see what it means. We're not just having fun; we're turning away from what really matters such as getting a job done, completing a thought or having an important line of conversation. Distraction is really the enemy.
Is there anything that can be done to counteract the distractions?
I hope more individuals will recognise distractions and take personal steps to counteract them. Occasionally, there are going to be some things that the Government can do. For example, much more needs to be done to counteract spam. A couple of basic things could benefit the consumer and wouldn't be onerous to the market. One of the best ideas: if you're sending a commercial message unsolicited to a number of people, you should put the word advertisement in the subject heading. It would be very easy for a recipient to filter those messages and never see them.
You wonder in your book whether the Web will be a reliable conduit for the advancement of mankind or just be another channel for infotainment. How do you see this playing out?
The Internet is going to be all things to all people. It's not going to lose the serious scholarship that's going on or all the wonderful magazines that people couldn't previously have afforded to print by conventional means. But at the same time, the Internet will look more and more like a giant cable TV network, especially for those people who won't take the time to find those serious gems. I hope the segment of society that is intellectual and serious stays so, that we don't lose them to pop culture. Maybe there are things we can do to draw people to the more serious side of life. However, the more I see of the distractions of a technological life, the less sanguine I am about that.