Houellebecq and the Internet

If you read this blog, or if you follow my activity on Twitter, you may know that I have a fairly relaxed attitude towards the “dangers” of the digital world. The great majority of supposed perils correspond more or less to what happens in our offline lives, and – in our offline lives too – we tend to be vulnerable to external influences only up to a certain point (here an excellent paper argumenting that we are not as gullible as we think – in fact, as we think others are). I wrote about the digital spread of fake news mirroring the traditional spread of rumours (according to BuzzFeed, the fake news that generated more engagement on Facebook in 2017 is titled “Babysitter transported to hospital after inserting a baby in her vagina”), about the inconsistencies of the “post-truth” narrative, or about the exaggeration of the digital echo-chambers danger (I would probably write differently today these two, rather old, posts).

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Everything is alright, then? In the last few months, I had a passing thought coming from the Houellebecq’s debut novel, Whatever (the strange translation of the original title Extension du domaine de la lutte). Since it still does not seem obviously wrong, and I just read an article citing the exact same paragraph (in a completely different context and, in fact, consistently with the Houellebecq’s one) I decided to write a post about it.

Here is the quotation:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.

In sum, sexual liberalism, as economic liberalism, exacerbates inequality, and creates, as economic liberalism, an elite of individuals that have the big piece of the pie (sex, or money), while the others – the majority – have the crumbles. While this is wildly outside of my professional area of knowledge, I always found the idea stimulating.

Is it possible the Internet is doing something similar? Does the easy, cheap and immediate, access to an enormous amount of information creates an “informational elite” that uses this information in an efficient and productive way, while the others – the majority – have the crumbles? I can think about the existence of a relatively small number of educated, digital-smart, people that use wisely social media and research engines, do not waste (much) their time with fake news and useless information, and find quickly everything they need, in a way that was impossible until a few years ago, while other people use the Internet mainly to share quotations written on sunset pictures (if good) or to add angry comments to the clickbait of the day (if bad).

In a regulated informational system – think about, well, the world before the Internet… – everybody accesses more or less the same information (“classic” books, compulsory school, etc.), which is a disadvantage for the informational elite, but an advantage for the others.

As I said before, this goes well beyond my professional area of knowledge (I promise I will not write an academic paper about it), but it seems a possible reason why “more information is better” (which is what I believe) is not always true, at least at the societal level. I am happy to hear why I am wrong.

2 thoughts on “Houellebecq and the Internet

  1. As I said before, this goes well beyond my professional area of knowledge, but it seems a possible reason why “more information is better” is not always true, at least at the societal level. I am happy to hear why I am wrong.

    I would look at it differently. Before having access to information on the internet, I had access to about 180 different TV channels with everything from cooking, science, history, TLC, cartoons, sports, news, adams family reruns, ect… and my dad and mom, who back in their youth had access to just two channels, taught me to be sceptical about what I see on TV, what they considered reliable channels. I guess they fell for “fake news” in their past when watching TV and living through the rise of the TV age taught them to question the new information they had access to. My grandparents needed to learn a similar lesson about radio, or in the case of my Granddad did not fully learn it. Their parents (my great grandparents) had 100 times more access to information via books and other print than the previous generation. They had previously unavailable access to cooking, science or history books, newspapers (of varying degrees of fakeness), political pamplets or ideological revolutionary books. They had to go through a learning curve on how much to trust or distrust such information. That generation might have read and been enveloped by “Das Kapital” or “Mein Kampf” and dived society into catastrophe, but if today someone writes a similar book, society has learned to be skeptical and question that format of information. There would be discussion via print, radio, tv and internet. If today, a radio host calls for a new Rwandan genocide, society has learned that lesson as well, just see the push back a few years ago when a radio moderator in Jamaica called for the murder of homosexuals. Now it might have been a seemingly logical argument a hundred years ago to curtail the amount of information available via print, or who was allowed to broadcast radio channels in the 40s, or TV in th 60s, but that is a non argument today. No one is required to get government permission to write a book, host a podcast or start a video channel. True, if there is an aspect of this new format that totally envelopes our generation we might dive into catastrophe but the goal is that society learns how to deal with this new format instead of neutering it.

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      In fact, I completely agree with you. As I mention in the first paragraph, I am optimistic about the effects of digitally-enabled free, cheap, and fast circulation of information and I am sceptical towards the alleged “dangers” of web and social media. I subscribe to your conclusion: “the goal is that society learns how to deal with this new format instead of neutering it.”

      You can see this post as an exercise in evaluating possible counterarguments. Still, I think that an unregulated system of distribution of information can create more “informational inequality”. This may not be bad or may be a negligible disadvantage with respect to the net overall gain (this is what I think). I wonder whether this is a productive way to look at it.

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