In the first years after the internet's arrival as a mass medium, a lot of books about it functioned as travel guides: what to do, what to see and how to navigate this new world-in-progress. Of course, the first backlash began in 1995 with Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, but there's been time for several more iterations of this pattern. Recent years have seen more dyspeptic tomes: professional quality is being destroyed by amateurs (Andrew Keen), the internet is making us stupider (Nicholas Carr), the internet is bankrupting the media (Robert Levine) and so on. In any generation, the extremists — internet is BAD, internet is GREAT — grab more attention than middle-ground authors who trade in nuance and common sense.
It's this middle, rational ground that Tom Chatfield — the author of 2010's Fun, Inc — covers in How to Thrive in the Digital Age. This short (160-page) book, which still manages to pack a lot in, is part of a series called 'School of Life' that claims to offer "radical ways to help us raid the treasure trove of human knowledge". I wouldn't call Chatfield's entry radical in any way, but as a guide to thinking about the internet in 2012, it's a reasonable effort to help people through the decisions they make about their online lives.
Along the way Chatfield tackles some particularly persistent myths. No, pornography is not the most common search term. Yes, sometimes people escape into controlled virtual worlds where they can win if they're persistent enough — but when the world you're escaping from is Manhattan, just post-9/11?
Another of these myths is that young people don't care about privacy. That's not ithe case, according to Chatfield: young people (like young people of former generations) simply aren't interested in what adults have to say about privacy because those adults persist in focusing on the wrong things (like the threat of paedophiles) and lose credibility as a result. For teens, the bigger issues are cyberbullying and the fact that they, like the rest of us, have a hard time navigating privacy settings on social networks. Chatfield suggests that digital history — and debate about current issues — should be incorporated into education. The list of further reading at the back of the book is a good place to start.
Chatfield suggests that digital history — and debate about current issues — should be incorporated into education.
Similarly, rather than simply tear apart Keen's, Carr's and Levine's arguments, Chatfield examines the workings of the internet as a medium in several different cases. On the execution of Troy Davis, for example, he notes that the story did not have the same closure on the Net as it did in traditional media. His bigger point is simply that although the internet's massive disruption is indisputable, the negative vista that Keen, Carr and Levine see is only one aspect of it. Experts also blog, for example, and new models for financing books are appearing. The emerging digital landscape is not a barren wasteland in all directions.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age
By Tom Chatfield