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Will the Internet Doom Bourgeois Culture?

The title of this post is one way to describe the question that is asked – and answered, with some qualifications, in the affirmative – by Jerome Barkow in his lead essay in this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.  In brief, Barkow’s thesis is that the Internet and social media enable young people too easily to avoid learning from those older people in their societies whose mores and actions reflect the best aspects of their societies.

Barkow’s essay is thought-provoking and very well argued and wonderfully written.  I encourage you to read the whole thing.  It’s not long.  Here’s a key slice from it:

Movies, sports events, and the Internet are nearly global in scale. Entertainers and athletes seem to be presented as being near the top of the status hierarchy. People who get attention – who get more “hits,” more followers than others, more fans – are perceived as of high status and worthy of even more attention. Our brains evolved in small-scale societies and react to these strangers as if they were powerful and important members of our own geographic community. We often grow up wanting to be like them, and even when we consciously reject them, they influence us. Parents everywhere seem to have children who want to be film actors, or hip-hop artists, or Olympic gold medal winners.

In my response essay, I – inspired by Matt Ridley – don my “rational optimist” hat and counter Barkow’s pessimism by offering reasons for optimism.  Here’s a slice from my essay:

Indeed, a few minutes spent at Cato’s Humanprogress.org are enough to make clear that humanity has never been as wealthy, healthy, safe, and educated as it is today. And nearly all of this progress has occurred as communication costs have fallen and, hence, as the reach of each person’s communication has widened and lengthened. The 15th century printing press – the 18th century newspaper – the 19th century telegraph and telephone – the 20th century radio, television, and e-mail – the 21st century Internet, smartphone, instant messaging, and social media: all have added the voices of strangers to those of parents and local elites.

It’s true that this blessing is not unalloyed. The same telephone that allows the parents of a sick child to summon a physician at 3:00 am allows that child, just a few years later, to be summoned by an acquaintance to participate in some heinous or self-destructive deed. The same Internet that allows my George Mason University colleagues each year to open the eyes of tens of thousands of students to the wonders of the economic way of thinking allows ISIS operatives each year to entice a few thousand impressionable young people into the ranks of vile evil-doers. And yet human progress is nevertheless correlated with the fall in the costs for ordinary people of communicating over long distances with strangers.