Apple Pie

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1996

Is the Internet American? Much of Europe seems to think so. Whenever I go there to give a talk about technology, I’m inevitably scolded by an ambassador or ex-prime minister for promoting an intrinsically American technology and ideology in places that are having enough trouble maintaining their own cultural values without getting deluged by more stuff from the United States.

Developing nations and their leaders, on the other hand, are usually too desperate for infrastructure to worry about any American side-effects. Commenting on the rapid expansion of American-made interactive media into South Africa, even Nelson Mandela confessed “there are ways we need to be overwhelmed.” The European people I have met are just eager to get online but their leaders and academics tend to see American flags embedded in HTML code, and say they don’t care to sacrifice their own culture to our anarchic, if communicative, datasphere.

Is there something particularly American about the Internet? Are we guilty of spreading a potentially noxious culture to the rest of the world?

For the most part, the Internet invasion did take root first on American soil. But that doesn’t mean that the Net was immediately Americanized; rather, it seems to me that America was Internetized by the emergence of cyberculture within the nation’s formerly discrete boundaries. If the Internet looks American to those who are first engaging it now, it’s only because American culture has already been fundamentally altered by technology.

Of course, there is an ideological agenda implicit to the Internet. It’s not really libertarian, though it sometimes looks that way, and it’s not really democratic, though it sometimes looks that way, too. Most simply stated, it’s an agenda of innovation and evolution. Innovation yields better ideas and designs, which eventually replace the old ones.

To European cultures that believe their value lies in their past contributions, or to leaders and academics who feel their own authority rests in accomplishments of decades or centuries ago, the spread of the Internet across the Atlantic is understandably threatening. Internet culture catalyzes change.

Although European intellectuals tell us they fear further domination of their media by American cultural iconography like Disney or Madonna, I believe this is merely a ruse designed to rile up their citizens into ethnocentric isolationism. Surely they understand that, unlike television or even movies, the Internet promotes participation more than it does passive absorption of content. By getting online, any culture gains the opportunity to spread its own iconography back to the rest of the world.

When pressed on the issue, European academics admit that what really fear is what their own unfettered populations might do with the power of media. Since World War II, many leading social theorists in Europe have been arguing that fascism is a natural outgrowth of an uncontrolled and free-willed populace. No wonder they equate a free marketplace of ideas with ideological warfare and social chaos. The well-meaning elite are afraid that ideas such as Nazism will thrive again or, almost as upsetting, that if their cultures come to value innovation over stasis, they may lose their own jobs.

The French delegate attending a talk I gave at the United Nations gave it away. He announced after my speech that he hadn’t “heard anything so ridiculous since Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” That night, I revisited the works of Rousseau using my Microsoft Encarta CD-rom and confirmed my recollection that the 18th-century Swiss/French philosopher believed that institutions tend to corrupt people, and that human beings in their “natural state” are morally superior to those in artificially civilized ones. Although many of his assumptions were naively racist, Rousseau helped lay the groundwork for the French Revolution by arguing that the popular will is more powerful than “divine right.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have faith that humans left to their own devices will not choose to rape and pillage one another. The overwhelmingly positive social effects of the Internet so far demonstrate that most people would rather chat and commune than brainwash or retreat.

But it’s true that the Internet levels the playing field. It challenges the divine right of social institutions, whose ability to post an insightful or provocative Web page is no greater than yours or mine. The Net returns social intercourse to its natural state, where anything can happen. Maybe this is an American idea, but I learned it from the French.