Evgeny Morozov delights in dumping on the internet evangelists. Recently, Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, has been seen tussling with what he calls the “cyber utopians” (he’s a “cyber realist”, he says) over the role of social media in the Arab Spring. He’s also engaged in an entertainingly snarly exchange with “social media guru” Jeff Jarvis, following a caustic review of his book Private Parts.
Now he’s ruffled the web-gurus’ feathers again with an op-ed in the New York Times that laments the “death of the cyberflâneur”.
The “cyberflâneur” – a term coined in “an obscure little essay from 1998” – describes an online incarnation of the flâneur, “an emblem of modernity” most closely associated with 19th-century Paris; one who would “leisurely stroll through its streets and especially its arcades to cultivate what Honore de Balzac called “the gastronomy of the eye”, writes Morozov.
But just as the physical flâneur was driven to near extinction by modernisation, its cyber descendant has been starved of an environment to roam. The internet has lost its charm.
Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling – it’s a place for getting things done. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling – it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the web any more. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping – for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets – hasn’t helped either.
Most to blame, in Morozov’s analysis, is that lumbering giant, Facebook, and its obsession with “socialising” every inch of human experience.
Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible – solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.
Morozov’s polemic – or essay, is probably better – has had a number of critics, the most persuasive of which question his characterisation of the internet.
Here, for example, is John Hendel in the Atlantic:
The internet provides ample opportunity to, as the old wanderers did in Morozov’s words, “observe, to bathe in the crowd, taking in its noises, its chaos, its heterogeneity, its cosmopolitanism.” The cyberflâneur continues to probe our online paths today, and I suspect the same will be true tomorrow. 87
Morozov asks why “playfulness, intrigue, and serendipity” have vanished on our 2012 Internet. But where is he looking? Not the internet I’ve come to know.
Hendel has a point. But for my money Morozov’s most compelling argument addresses the socialising/sharing fetish that is so mawkishly in vogue.
Isn’t it obvious that consuming great art alone is qualitatively different from consuming it socially? And why this fear of solitude in the first place? It’s hard to imagine packs of flâneurs roaming the streets of Paris as if auditioning for another sequel to “The Hangover.” But for Mr. Zuckerberg, as he acknowledged on “Charlie Rose,” “it feels better to be more connected to all these people. You have a richer life.”
It’s this idea that the individual experience is somehow inferior to the collective that underpins Facebook’s recent embrace of “frictionless sharing,” the idea that, from now on, we have to worry only about things we don’t want to share; everything else will be shared automatically.
An opinion piece in a similar vein appeared in the New York Times last month. Susan Cain’s “The Rise of the New Groupthink” is more concerned with workplaces and classrooms than the virtual world, but its defence of the solitary spirit might well apply to the internet user – at a stretch even the cyberflâneur.
It seems someone on the opinion desk at the Times is waging a gentle war on noisy crowds – from the end of last year, here’s Pico Iyer on the “Joy of Quiet”.
And you’ll thank me for sharing with you the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker on the march of the socialisers. “You know how annoying it is when you’re sitting on the train with a magazine and the person sitting beside you starts reading over your shoulder?” he writes. “Welcome to every single moment of your future.”