Is The Internet Killing Culture?

This essay, by Lethe Bashar, originally appeared on his The Blog of Innocence on 5/18/09.

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t been able to finish reading an entire book in over three months.

My compulsive and ardent participation on the Internet, writing blogs, commenting, publishing poems, and reading others’ work, seems to have something to do with this.

Mostly my reading these days is confined to the well-written columns of The New York Times. I am a New York Times enthusiast and reading the newspaper coincides perfectly with my short span of attention.

A couple weeks ago, I grew interested in the phenomenon of "mass amateurism" on the Web and I wanted to investigate it. I asked a couple prominent literary bloggers, Nigel Beale from Nota Bene Books and Andrew Seal, from Blographia Literaria, to write essays for the Arts and Culture Webzine I edit, called "Escape into Life."

In Nigel’s essay, he quotes the author Andrew Keen from "The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture". And while I won’t re-quote Keen here because the message is in the title, I would like to respond based on my own experience of the last couple years, and how my behavior has changed in regards to the medium of the Internet.

From college onward, I delved into literature as if it were a contact sport, devouring the classics with fervor and intensity. I majored in English, which gave me somewhat of a background in reading these authors, but I went beyond my studies to read European classics most of which weren’t taught in my classes.

I loved French and Russian realism. I relished the imaginative powers, the ability of these great writers to create worlds inside their fiction. My favorite authors were Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola in the French tradition; and Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in the Russian.

Literary realism became my opium; I seemed to be able to live off of it forever; indulging in these beautiful and convincing worlds. Intoxicated I would spend days in the library reading, losing track of time and forgetting everything that pained me in my trivial life.

The days of literary intoxication may be over, however. I recall them with a sort of nostalgia but I can no longer enter those worlds. I refuse to abandon myself to them; I don’t have the patience to read Zola’s meticulous story-telling or Tolstoy’s epic handling of characters and events.

What has happened since? Have I changed? Have I lost my ability to engage in culture and art?

The Internet has definitely changed the way I read and what I read. But it has also changed my view of myself from a passive receiver of "culture" to an active participant and creator of it.

In many ways, I’ve become the epitome of the amateur artist on the Web. I publish everything; poetry, essays, novels, even some sketches. And like many bloggers, I bask in the freedom to express my thoughts, my impressions, my art.

I poignantly remember a creative writing college professor once telling me–after I announced my desire to become a professional writer–"You won’t publish for another ten years. I’ve seen the corpses."

And so, now it is with a certain exuberance and defiance that I publish freely on the Web, all with the click of a button.

To me, the proliferation of artistic expression, the videos on YouTube, the online novels, the loads of bad poetry, cannot be equated with a loss or diminishment of culture but instead a replenishment of it. "More artists, more culture," I say–even if the great majority of those artists are naive and unskilled. The individual acts of creativity, that’s what’s important, and with more people creating, I see the phenomenon of mass amateurism as a boon.

Read the rest of the essay on The Blog of Innocence.