The great leveler

Access to the internet is a great leveler of society. The professionals, the experts, are losing their hegemony over people.

I first thought of this when an acquaintance at work told us that she had sold her home. The internet enabled her to cut her real estate agent out of the transaction. She saved more than $20,000.

Her house had been on the market for about six months, and she didn’t feel that her real estate agent was working hard enough on her behalf. So she listed the home on Grapevine, an online service which promises to give you the tools you need to sell your home yourself. Just a few weeks later, her home sold for a good price.

Maybe the timing was just a coincidence. But we know for sure that she saved a substantial amount of money. I can only imagine how real estate agents feel about this, knowing that their professional services are becoming expendable.

What about religious experts and professional clergy? Consider the following example.

Via Jewish Atheist, I came across this fascinating cry of alarm from Rabbi Horowitz:

I’m sorry to put a damper on things, but I just don’t know how to phrase this any other way. We are running out of time. …

I am getting a new wave of parents begging me to speak to their children. The profile is chillingly similar: 13-14 years old boys and girls. High achieving in school. No emotional problems; great, respectful kids from great homes. Well adjusted. They just don’t want to be frum [observant]. Period. They are eating on Yom Kippur, not keeping Shabbos, not keeping kosher; et al.

No anger, no drugs, no promiscuous activity. They are just not buying what we are selling. …

The kids are finding each other via cell phones, chat groups, Facebook and My Space. They are “making their own minyan.” [A minyan is a group of Jews large enough to form a quorum for worship.] Many minyanim in fact. …

May Hashem [i.e., God] give us the wisdom and courage to make the changes that are necessary to reverse these frightening trends.

The key statement is, “The kids are finding each other via cell phones, chat groups, Facebook and My Space. They are ‘making their own minyan.'”

Here again, the internet is the great leveler. Religion maintains its grip on people when they are isolated, insulated from the corroding influence of people who think differently. But no one who has internet access is isolated. The great wide world is only a click of a mouse away.

Erudite religious experts watch as the knowledge they have accumulated through painstaking study decreases in value. Esoteric traditions which have been handed down from one generation to the next, from time immemorial, are now spurned like a would-be lover who is out of his depth.

The conflict between modernity and ancient cultures and religions fascinates me. It doesn’t frighten me, because I’m convinced that anything that is worth preserving will find a way to survive. Call it evolution if you want:  the survival of what contributes to the public weal. Or have a little faith in God:  if your religion is true, God’s will surely cannot be subverted by the internet.

In the meantime, religion can no longer succeed by default — by cloistering another generation of children, ensuring that they never encounter an alternative worldview.

The ‘net is indeed a great leveler. For a person like me, whose instincts are anti-establishment, it’s a welcome development.

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things,and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Oct 22, 2007 @ 14:23:16

    Oooh! Web 2.0 plus religion! You are daring!

    Good post! I’m not surprised it’s coming to this, but the fact that someone actually verbalizes it so clearly is… well, awesome! I think that a first-hand account like this is way more valuable than our guesses as to what the elites are thinking.

    You fought against the comment that the increased ability of people to produce art is a good thing, but this goes right along that. Once, only “upper-brow” people could produce art, literature, film… whatever. You had to have money to produce art — or in the very least to distribute it. Now everyone can get in on the game! And while it is true that there is more mediocre art out there today, there is also an equally overwhelming amount of good ideas circulating the web.

    It’s the same with the religion. Yes, to an extent religion as we know it could be on the verge of facing a catastrophe. But we hail Luther for his innovations way back when, and the fact that the people are really taking charge now is the long-term fulfillment of that movement. The Internet is a great means to the end of having religious ideals in the hands of the everyday, regular people. Yes, it will contaminate the field, largely with the huge amount of average, wishy-washy material out there. But it also will encourage those who have good ideas to get out there and rally their friends around it, and that which is really good will emerge head and shoulders above the rest!

    Great Leveler indeed — and I mean Tony-The-Tiger Grrrr-eat!

    Reply

  2. JewishAtheist
    Oct 22, 2007 @ 14:26:35

    Interesting post and thanks for the link!

    Reply

  3. ric booth
    Oct 23, 2007 @ 09:24:17

    Very interesting post… but I wonder if similar posts were not published shortly after the advent of the printing press, the telegraph, and the fax machine. I welcome the internet-leveling but is it “the leveling” or “a re-leveling” that we are witnessing today?

    Reply

  4. JewishAtheist
    Oct 23, 2007 @ 15:51:10

    The printing press had a huge impact on religion. People were less dependent on the clergy and this helped give rise to the tons of denominations of today, as well as paving the road for, ironically, fundamentalism.

    Reply

  5. ric booth
    Oct 23, 2007 @ 19:53:44

    So the very thing that “leveled” became a tool for another power-hungry organization to exploit? In a world driven by an unhealthy thirst for more power/money/control this cycle will repeat. The internet is the latest (much needed) great leveler. As Stephen points out with the Luke 1:51 quote, it seems Babel has needed leveling before.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Oct 24, 2007 @ 07:00:00

    • Nebcanuck:
    You fought against the comment that the increased ability of people to produce art is a good thing, but this goes right along that. Once, only “upper-brow” people could produce art, literature, film… Now everyone can get in on the game!

    You’re right, I’m seeing it the other way around in this post. For obvious reasons, I’m sympathetic to people who don’t fit into the mould that the religious authorities lay out for them. I make good use of “web 2.0” when it comes to faith, and I too have formed my own minyan.

    I am convinced that Christianity needs to reinvent itself in order to survive the profound challenges of modernity. The internet, far from being a threat to Christianity, has the potential to be an instrument for its revivification — made necessary insofar as religious authorities resist change.

    As for the arts, the leveling effect probably means that musicians in particular will not be able to get wealthy off their art. I know someone with over fifteen days worth of songs on her computer, and she didn’t pay a nickel for any of them. To be blunt, it’s theft, and the one who is most hurt by it is the songwriter.

    At the same time, we’ve cut out the professional recording studio executive and the radio DJ, who used to determine what music people would be exposed to. And that’s a good thing by me. But I do feel sorry for the artist, who may be forced to keep his day job even if s/he builds a significant audience.

    No one gets rich by touring — it’s a very expensive proposition. If you don’t make an income off your recordings, who pays the bills?

    • Ric:
    Good point. These things are relative. The printing press was a huge advance, in terms of distributing information that had never been accessible to people before, and it led directly to the Protestant Reformation.

    The internet is another revolutionary advance toward the free flow of information. In Burma, the authorities had to shut down internet access before they could successfully stamp out the protests being led by Buddhist monks. Newspapers and books wouldn’t have been nearly so effective in coordinating events and alerting the outside world to the struggle.

    You’re absolutely right that this leveling has to happen cyclically. Every revolutionary becomes an autocrat in his turn. The Church, regrettably, is no exception to the rule. But Christ remains partial to the underdog.

    • JA:
    Thanks for popping in with that comment about the printing press. You are absolutely right, and you got there more quickly than I did.

    Reply

  7. nebcanuck
    Oct 24, 2007 @ 14:35:54

    As for the arts, the leveling effect probably means that musicians in particular will not be able to get wealthy off their art. I know someone with over fifteen days worth of songs on her computer, and she didn’t pay a nickel for any of them. To be blunt, it’s theft, and the one who is most hurt by it is the songwriter.

    I agree. But I think that a good chunk of online theft is a result of the distributors’ failure, not the people’s.

    There has and always will be theft of art. The only question is how predominant it is. I think that one of the reasons that it is so common today is that there are so few real distributors of the material in a fashion that suits the medium! Music companies have been very slow in accepting online sales as a viable source of revenue.

    It reminds me of that Colbert video which sparked the discussion in the first place. Colbert was confronted by the concept that he is losing money because his movies are being shown online. But in Colbert’s case, that’s a lie… Comedy Central has incorporated ads in order to make a profit off of the internet user base. And though there are people who use means to block the ads, etc., the vast majority are willing to accept the ad to get the content they want.

    Music should be the embraced in the same way. Currently in Canada, iTunes and Napster are the only two major music stores — and both use majorly restrictive formats in order to prevent people from sharing the music. But people have always shared music; By making it harder and harder for people to do so ruins the sociality of the art, and people turn instead to something like Limewire. It seems contradictory, but if iTunes and Napster would open up their formats (which iTunes has begun to do with their iTunes Plus), then they would gain a far wider audience. People are willing to pay if they don’t feel obligated to in the first place.

    I know I’m hesitant to buys songs I’ve never heard before. It’s the simple logic of music — you hear, you like, you buy. Yes, they would lose some business to people who share and never buy for themselves, but what business they lost that way they would gain in loyal customers who keep coming back to the store because they’re pleased with the overall impact the store made on them.

    So yes, it’s stealing. And I personally use iTunes all the time because I feel guilty that the artist should get none of my money for their hard work. But do I find it unusual that your friend has so much stolen music? Not at all. It’s the failure of the corporations as much as it is the thieves.

    Reply

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