The internet gives us the technological capability to transmit digital information seamlessly over any distance. The concept of culture is more complicated, but I mean the influences and inspirations we grow up with, such as the family norms and practices of a place, the street scenes, the local architecture and cuisine, and the slang. Culture comes from both nearby and more distant sources, but the emotional vividness of face-to-face interactions means that a big part of culture is intrinsically local.
Rapid Amazon delivery, or coffee shops that look alike all around the world, stem in part from the internet. The recommendations from the smart person who works in the local bookstore, or the local Sicilian recipe that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, are examples of culture.
Since the late 1990s, the internet has become far more potent. Yet the core techniques of culture have hardly become more productive at all, unless we are talking about through the internet. The particular aspects of culture which have done well are those easily translated to the digital world, such as songs on YouTube and streaming. When people are staring at their mobile devices for so many minutes or hours a day, that has to displace something. Those who rely on face-to-face relationships to transmit their influence and authority don’t have nearly the clout they once did.
The internet gaining on culture has made the last twenty years some of the most revolutionary in history, at least in terms of the ongoing fight for mindshare, even though the physical productivity of our economy has been mediocre. People are upset by the onset of populism in world politics, but the miracle is that so much stability has reigned, relative to the scope of the underlying intellectual and what you might call “methodological” disruptions.
The traditional French intellectual class, while retrograde in siding largely with culture, understands the ongoing clash fairly well. Consistently with their core loyalties, they do not mind if the influence of the internet is stifled or even destroyed, or if the large American tech companies are collateral damage.
Many Silicon Valley CEOs are in the opposite boat. Most of their formative experiences are with the internet and typically from young ages. The cultural perspective of the French intellectuals is alien to them, and so they repeatedly do not understand why their products are not more politically popular. They find it easier to see that the actual users love both their products and their companies. Of course, for the intellectuals and culture mandarins that popularity makes the entire revolution even harder to stomach.
Donald Trump ascended to the presidency because he mastered both worlds, namely he commands idiomatic American cultural expressions and attitudes, and also he has been brilliant in his political uses of Twitter. AOC has mastered social media only, and it remains to be seen whether Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have mastered either, but probably not.
Elizabeth Warren is now leading a campaign to split up the major tech companies, but unlike the Europeans she is not putting forward culture as an intellectual alternative. Her anti-tech campaign is better understood as an offset of some of the more hostility-producing properties of the internet itself. It is no accident that the big tech companies take such a regular pounding on social media, which is well-designed to communicate negative sentiment. In this regard, the American and European anti-tech movements are not nearly as close as they might at first seem.
In the internet vs. culture debate, the internet is at some decided disadvantages. For instance, despite its losses of mindshare, culture still holds many of the traditional measures of status. Many intellectuals thus are afraid to voice the view that a lot of culture is a waste of time and we might be better off with more time spent on the internet. Furthermore, many of the responses to the tech critics focus on narrower questions of economics or the law, without realizing that what is at stake are two different visions of how human beings should think and indeed live. When that is the case, policymakers will tend to resort to their own value judgments, rather than listening to experts. For better or worse, the internet-loving generations do not yet hold most positions of political power (recall Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress).
The internet also is good at spreading glorified but inaccurate pictures of the virtues of local culture, such as when Trump tweets about making America great again, or when nationalist populism becomes an internet-based, globalized phenomenon.
The paradox is that only those with a deep background in culture have the true capacity to defend the internet and also to understand its critics, but they are exactly the people least likely to take up that battle.