Please Hammer, Don’t

Hammers are awesome. To our rockhammer using ancestors, hammers were life-saving and -giving. There’s a reason the handheld hammer is in every worthwhile toolbox around the world.

Super Mario Hammer

In his essay titled “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere”, Mark Poster makes the outrageous claim that “the effect of hammers is not to make people hammers” (p. 262).

Okay, so it’s not outrageous. In context he is comparing hammers to Germany, viz the internet “constitute[s] an electric geography… more like a social space than a thing” and therefore “its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers” (p. 262).

So, hammers don’t turn you into a hammer, but Germany can turn you into a German, or something… It’s disappointing that Poster glosses this point, since I find it fundamental to his argument.

First of all, hammers might make you a carpenter, but the semantic difference is negligible (what do you call a person from Holland?). Certainly hammers are more ubiquitous than Germany, but geography is everywhere; there are other places.

Second of all, it is a mistake to refer to the “internet” as a single entity of any sort — electric geography, tool, or otherwise.

On the geographic front,  citizenship was different back when dial-in services were standard (the period Poster published this essay); one might be “from” CompuServe or AOL (the U.S. and Soviet Union of dial-in services), but the idea that any single user was a direct citizen of the internet was largely unheard of until the mid/late 90s.

Since the dissolution of segregated service providers and the inception of direct access, it becomes more tempting to think of the internet as one big place. However, in our vernacular, we refer to it as a multitude of places: “Visit our web site at…” or “I went to blah.com” instead of “We’re on the internet” or “I went to the internet.”

Rather than ask the question as Poster does, “If there is a public sphere on the internet, who populates it and how?” (p. 263) one might ask “If there are public spheres on the internet, who populates them and how?”  It’s a slightly more appropriate question, and seems easier to answer.

On the tool front, the internet is more like a Swiss Army Knife than a hammer, that much is certain. I would argue it’s more like a tool chest, with all kinds of tools lost in the bottom that you’ll never see or use.

When you un-oversimplify the metaphor, it begins to sound more appropriate. It also changes the timbre of the remainder of Poster’s essay.

This seems like the most appropriate treatment, and restores the potential for the internet to be evaluated in segments. In this way, the internet remains neither “public” nor “private” sphere, but different uses of it may fall within one or the other of the realms. This also restores the debate about “public” and “private” to Habermas and his fellows.

What I like most about the internet as a collection of tools is the opportunity to study its utilization by the human ape. From an evolutionary standpoint, we have not changed, nor will we any time in the knowable future. Based on this, what can we learn about ourselves as a species when offered this new collection of tools?

When we first got the hammer, we opened fruit and nuts; we also hit each other on the head and took each other’s fruit and nuts. The same sort of thing can be said for every technology. We learn a little more about our abilities to increase wealth and happiness, but we also learn a little more about how far we’ll go to get it.

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