Patricians, Cesspools and Rubber Boots

May 6, 2009

I became interested in ancient technology by accident. I ignored history, particularly ancient history, in college. Too fuzzy. A few years ago on a tour with some friends we were in a ruin somewhere in Turkey. I looked down and saw an exposed clay pipe. I asked the tour guide what the pipe was, and she replied, “The wealthy citizens had running water.” The ruins dated from the 800 BCE period, and I assumed that the folks who lived used the equivalent of outhouses. I was wrong. Someone had figured out how to make pipes and install indoor plumbing.

There were two classes of residents. Some had indoor plumbing and lived the good life. Others had a less good life. Patricians have used plumbing as one way to distinguish themselves from people like me. My ancestors had to use outdoor plumbing.

The image of the cesspool, then, is one that makes clear that there are two classes of people – an upper class and a lower class. When I read about metaphors invoking cesspools, I think about the class distinctions that are evident in the ruins of ancient cities. Those cities were much like the modern one in which I live. Order and disorder collide, and institutions make an attempt to prevent chaos from dominating simple activities like driving to work or shopping.

I thought about this dividing line when I read Jim Spanfeller’s “What Google Can Do to Make the Web Less of a Cesspool” here. The article makes some interesting points, yet I was troubled by assertion that a commercial enterprise can and should assume responsibility for information. A commercial enterprise has finite resources and, by definition, the need to clean up is likely to be a large job. Information is created by many, which leads to the implicit idea that a larger entity should become the janitor. If not Google, who? Well, one candidate is “the government” or perhaps a group of really smart and good people will will act as the government’s agent. Now we are back to the plumbing in the ancient city. As long as the patricians can keep the mess from their premises, life improves.

Mr. Spanfeller wrote:

At, we have estimated that Google makes roughly $60 million a year directing folks to our site. And by the way, 40 percent of those dollars are derived from the search terms of Forbes, or Forbes Magazine—simple navigation. Seems like a very nice chunk of change for simply being there. In the end, in attempting to “do no evil,” Google has done exactly that. I say this not just as someone running a content site but also as an end user. If this inequity of support continues along these lines, we will see a continuing destruction of our journalistic enterprises—enterprises that are one of the core building blocks of our democracy. Last year, while addressing the magazine publishers and editors of the MPA at the Google Campus, Eric Schmidt suggested that the web was a “cesspool” and that it was up to the major journalistic brands to clean it up. Well Eric, in a great many ways, Google has helped to create that cesspool, and as such I would hope that it can be part of the solution.

The idea that free flowing information can be cleaned up is an interesting one. I don’t think the job will be easy. I don’t think patricians from the dead tree world or from the online world are up to the task. We have a new context in which digital information is not a cause, but a consequence of our present way of existing.

The cesspool arguments are tempests in a chamber pot. Once the information flows outside the boundaries of restricted and tightly controlled channels, the information cannot be put back into those old containers. Get your boots on may be a better way to approach the situation.

Large flows of information, cesspools, and a digital mess are the characteristics of this time and place. The combined efforts of Forbes and Google will have little substantive impact. In fact, neither of these companies and not even the governments of Australia and China can contain the information flows, but these nation states keep trying to shut Pandora’s box.

The patricians want the good old days, but those days are gone. What’s interesting is that the newer modes of communication may be permanently outside the span of control of the Google and, it seems to me, existing mechanisms for control of human behavior. The fix is to abandon computers, electricity, and all things digital.

Mr. Spanfeller’s argument and his plea for Google to do its part are like the scholars’ reading of ancient texts: interesting, maybe intellectually satisfying, but markers of an era lost to history. Rubber boots, on the other hand, are practical, work reasonably well, and put the responsibility in the hands of an individual, not in fantasyland. Perhaps I will tweet that boot idea?

Stephen Arnold, May 6, 2009


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