London Times adds to hate for the Web (and California)

In a blistering article in Sunday's London Times, columnist Bryan Appleyard blames the Web and, specifically, the cult of California life, for creating a mirage of the individual set free.

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

It's all California's fault.

At least that's how London Times columnist Bryan Appleyard sees it, in a heartily vicious attack on Web culture and everything it has wrought along its socially destructive way.

In his post, cheerily titled "Break Free of this world wide delusion," Appleyard excoriates the cult of the Web, which--he firmly believes--resides in the masturbatory den that is the West Coast.

And while his angle of attack differs a little from that of Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, it is just as pained.

Web 2.0, he says, can be defined in many ways. But "its principal features are, as with everything else in California, freedom, personal expression, letting it all hang out and making shedloads of wonga."

In case, you were not familiar with the term "wonga," this is an English term for "loot." Yes, wonga was, indeed, one of the prime motivators behind, say, English colonialism.

But that was then. And this is very much of the now. Appleyard, you see, believes Web lovers are "historically ignorant."

The Web, he says, is not ushering in a post-industrial world. The crises of the last few years have proved that ancient stuff like oil and coal are far more significant to our survival than is the energy-guzzling, lap-dancing entertainment that is the Web.

And yet the Web mindlessly pursues the glorification of the individual: "The key feature of web 2.0 that is currently driving change is its intense focus on the individual. Google's power springs from its ability to advertise not to populations or groups but to individuals."

A shot from inside the London branch of one of California's individualism peddlers. CC Jon Rawlinson/Flickr

Perhaps too much sitting in damp, inclement weather has made Appleyard envious of a life lived in shorts. But he accuses California of being a paradise in which the individual is set free.

Ready for a little twist? Well, apparently, this individualism creates conformity.

"The banking crisis may not have been caused by the internet but it was certainly fueled by the way connectivity and speed created a market in which everybody was gripped by the hysteria of the herd," he argues.

Naturally, this all ends with a high flourish and bullets over Broadway (the one in San Francisco, naturally): "It is the cultists who threaten the web. They are the ones encouraging dreams of a utopia of the self. They fail to see that the web is just one more product of the biology, culture and history that make us what we are."

You still breathing? OK, finale time: "In the real world, it is wonderful, certainly, but it is also porn, online brothels, privacy invasions, hucksterism, mindless babble and the vacant gaze that always accompanies the mindless pursuit of the new."

Now then, I know many of you will have your own feelings about this riveting perspective. Some might think it interesting that it comes from a nation that occasionally gives the impression of enjoying the mindless pursuit of the old.

Some might also wonder that it comes from an industry that failed to anticipate the Web's direction (and its culture) and lost rather a lot of, um, wonga in that failure.

Some might also consider that the Web doesn't celebrate individualism at all costs. Even the most mindless detractor might admit that it connects many people who otherwise would be permanently apart. Some might also add that the Web does give you a choice in how to use it. Which old media, traditionally, have not.

But perhaps I might offer my own highly individualistic perspective. You see, I lived in caring, sharing London for quite some time. I was, in fact, brought up in caring, sharing England. I have a lot of friends there. I love to go back. For a week or two in July.

And now I live in the self-centered purgatory that is California. I cannot help, therefore, but take this besmirching of my state with a touch of both caringsharingness and individualism.

You see, for all the self-centeredness that exists in these painfully sunny parts, it is largely an honest self-centeredness. While I am sometimes still agog at how quickly people here will divulge information about their kidneys, livers, incomes, and sexual proclivities, there is something charmingly sincere about it.

There is little more tiresome than the perspective, which, I must sorrowfully admit, I can happily associate with England, that we are one nation, the Land of Hope and Glory.

Because it simply isn't true. On a Sunday lunchtime, many folks in England find it hard to share anything more than talk of the piddling rain and the geraniums. Is that what makes a nation, a collective, so great? Is that really the ideal toward which humanity should strive?

Some Californians feel that openness is often seen by the English as dangerously disruptive to their social fabric: instead of saying what we think, we'll just be it. It is a little easier, they say, for the English to live with the truth tucked behind their forked tongues. Well, at least until the third pint of beer.

One of the greatest dangers (for some) that the Web has generated is that there are far more outlets for a slightly Californian honesty as well as for dishonesty. Both can be shared by groups just as much as they might be an expression of one individual. Both give us a larger idea of the ultimate difficulties of the human condition.

I get a little frisson of refrigeration when I look at the words Appleyard uses to describe the ills of California: "freedom," "personal expression," and "letting it all hang out."

If these are bad things, we should be supporting their opposites. Which would be "slavery," "personal silence" and "keeping it all in." How terribly odd.

I'm not thinking of yet suggesting that California should invade England (I mean, come on, man, invasion's not cool), but is this Golden State really in the grips of a cult? No more than the financial center of England is gripped by those who went to certain schools and universities. And they didn't need Web 2.0 to create that little pre-Facebook group.

I wouldn't dream, however, of arguing with Appleyard's final words: "The web is human and fallen; it is bestial as much as it is angelic. There are no new worlds. There is only this one."

But is California really wrecking the world with the cultish iniquity of the Web? Or have other places had a far more lasting deleterious effect? I won't say which places. Best to keep it left unsaid.