Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Book review: Webtopia, Peter Lewis (2019)

If you’re going to be writing a book about things that people will likely already know even before they open the front cover, you have to think about including some original insights. But Lewis’ disappointing book appeared to have nothing like this in its pages although one favour the author did me is to show me some of the ideas of Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian. People I know had suggested to me that I read Harari but I had never got around to doing so, so Lewis’ inclusion of some passages from one of his books here constituted something of an educational episode for me.

Lewis goes back to the early days of the web and chronicles his own engagement with it. As he does so he includes for the reader’s education some interviews with people he has met online as well as the occasional quote from nonfiction books. Overall, this was for me a boring work that intends at its outset to give a rational account of how “things went wrong” after the early promise of the web. Take it from Lewis: they went wrong at some point and now we are stuck with the results.

I skipped frantically through the bulk of this production on the lookout for some stray indication that the author had cottoned on to what had really been happening, but it was in vain. Harari had shown him that people use language in order to increase the functional capacity of their societies, and Lewis had cloned that idea by introducing some personal reminiscences from his adolescence growing up in Australia, in order to show how this mechanism can happen in real life.

But he never took the matter to the next step, to consider how people weaponise, for example, news stories, or how they create community by sharing links to things that they think are notable or that warrant comment. He stopped short of showing how social media, on its part, has changed the nature of the public sphere. For Lewis, the failure of the web is all the fault of the corporations and of Donald Trump. He can, it seems, only see the failings of people on the right, and has missed seeing the awfulness that often characterises the ways that people on the left use social media.

Lewis frames his study of the web in its early stages by giving a bit of personal history: his time working for Australian Associated Press in the 80s covering the decline and fall of the Soviet bloc. This kind of locus of meaning, freighted as it is with colour and interest, dots the narrative. In the end, though, I didn’t really see how this book warranted the purchase price or the time required to read the parts of it that I got through. Even skipping from section head to section head in search of things of interest took some time that I now feel might have been better put to other uses.

I can’t see the way out for someone like Lewis, however. In a real sense, his personal brand of politics limits his ability to discern the truth among all the appealing substitutes for it that can be found out there, in the ether. And it’s not as if no-one has ever thought of writing a book like this before.

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