XCVII – Blogs or Blotto?

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“Heavier-than-air
flying machines are impossible.”

~
Lord Kelvin (1895)

“Video
won't be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first
six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood
box every night.”

~
Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox (1946)

“I can
assure you on the highest authority that data processing is a
fad and won't last out the year.”

~
Business books editor at Prentice-Hall
(1957)

The
foregoing quotations are to be found in a delightful book, The
Experts Speak
, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. Described
as a “compendium of authoritative misinformation,” it illustrates
how even highly respected authorities in their fields of endeavor
can get tripped up and embarrassed by the unpredictabilities inherent
in a complex world.

If
another edition of this book is forthcoming, the authors would be
well-advised to pay attention to the whining coming from members
of the established media, who are doing their best to convince us
that Internet “blogging” is just another fad that will soon go the
way of the hula-hoop and the hokey-pokey. A recent CNN news feature
on “blog power” was such an exercise, with one speaker focusing
on the fact that there are so many sources, so much conflicting
data and analysis, and so much error inherent in the blogging process
that readers are burdened in their efforts to discover the truth
of things. No mention was made, of course, of the lying, distortions,
and propagandizing that has long infected traditional news outlets;
nor was credit given to blog-sites for catching and correcting a
number of these institutional deviations from truthfulness. The
search for truth and understanding depends upon a constantly energized
mind that searches, weighs, and analyzes, all with an enduring skepticism
as to what one finds.

In
the face of so much competing and conflicting information, CNN hostess
Judy Woodruff pondered, would people not be better advised to rely
on the “mainstream media” for their news? She might just as well
have added: “you have been content to let us do your thinking for
you; why do you want to undertake such tedious and unceasing work?
Let us continue to tell you what we think you should know!” That
CNN is one of the “mainstream” institutions, the self-interested
nature of her question expresses the empty desperation of the practitioners
of an information system model that is rapidly dying.

The
image that comes to mind when I think of the present institutional
order, is that of the stegosaurus, the bell-curve-shaped dinosaur
with plated armor along its spine. The stegosaurus was so large
that it had two brains, one in its head the other in its tail. It
is said that a stegosaurus might have been fatally attacked at its
backside, while the frontal brain — due to the sluggish nature of
the animal's nervous system — might have continued munching tree
leaves, not knowing that its fate was already sealed.

So
it seems with denizens of the institutional order, particularly
those in the news media. The minds at the major television networks,
newspapers, and other “mainstream” purveyors of information, either
(a) don't understand that the vertically-structured information
model — which operates from the premise “we will tell you what we
think you ought to know” — is in as terminal a state as our stegosaurus;
or (b) they do understand this, but hope that, by denying
the inevitable, they can forestall the fatal consequences.

There
is nothing “faddish” about the collapse of vertically-structured
institutional systems, and the emergence of horizontal networks
of interconnected individuals. Centralized systems are rapidly
becoming decentralized – a matter about which I have
written before — producing a fundamental change in how people will
organize themselves in society. Because of the Internet, the information-genie
has escaped its institutional confines — where it has been controlled,
manipulated, and hidden from view, in furtherance of institutional
interests to monopolize the content of the minds of subjugated men
and women.

The
role of the “mainstream media” has long been the same as that of
the government school system: to condition minds to not only accept,
but to desire having society organized just as it is. As
the United States' wars against Afghanistan and Iraq progressed,
major news outlets were preoccupied with propagandizing the Bush
administration's party line. One retired general after another —
most employed by defense contractors! — was brought on camera to
assure the American people that the war policy was justified and
the military strategy was in competent hands. Critics of the war
were not to be seen or heard, save for the one channel that has
preserved its journalistic integrity: C-SPAN.

American
television, in particular, has so diluted the substance of “newscasts”
as to render them virtually meaningless to thoughtful men and women.
While bloggers, Internet websites, and individual e-mailers were
often making factual and analytical challenges to political policies
and programs, network television was anesthetizing minds with prolonged
coverage of the Scott Peterson trial, entertainment world gossip,
or trivial events writ large as the “lead story” of the day. Driving
down the Pacific coast the other day, my wife and I listened to
a BBC News show on satellite radio — a phenomenon that is carrying
decentralization into the realm of broadcast radio. It was refreshing
to hear newscasters discussing something other than who had won
what particular “Grammy” award the night before!

The
establishment media is so intellectually bankrupt that the most
informative television news program is “The Daily Show, With Jon
Stewart” on the “Comedy Central” channel. When satire becomes
the most effective means of understanding human events, it is a
sign that established society may be in an irreparable state of
collapse. Air-headed television voyeurs who partake of the sociology
of men
and women transported to a remote island, or locked up in a suburban
house – shows peddled to the American public as “reality” –
overlook the reality that such mindless programming represents:
the continuing failure of an establishment media to appeal to intelligent
minds.

News
reports abound of the sharp declines in television viewing and newspaper
subscriptions. Men and women intent on understanding the world in
which they live are increasingly turning to the Internet, a system
that expresses the phrase “marketplace of ideas” as no other has
up to this point in time. Websites and bloggers are learning the
same lessons that now beleaguer the established media: in a rapidly
decentralizing world, men and women will develop their own demands
for information that serves their interests. With the Internet,
people need no longer be passive recipients of what institutional
authorities regard as the “politically correct” content of their
minds!

Established
interests have always been discomforted by innovation and change.
In the face of the Internet challenge, I suspect that many media
chieftains would find comfort in the sentiments of a Michigan banker
who, in 1903, opined that “the horse is here to stay, but the automobile
is only a novelty — a fad.” Because, as the study of chaos informs
us, complex systems generate unpredictable outcomes, “blogging”
may, indeed, be a short-term phenomenon. But as long as the channels
for the flow of information remain unrestricted, today's blogs will
likely evolve into more sophisticated, horizontal processes that
allow individuals to freely communicate their understanding
to one another, without the need for institutionalized oversight
and control. Individuals who are both the producers and consumers
of information will have incentives to create more effective systems
and mechanisms for the pursuit of understanding.

Such
establishment shepherds as Hillary Clinton will continue their pleas
for Internet “gatekeepers” to keep the marketplace of ideas as subject
to rigid regulations as attend other economic activity. Nor will
there be a shortage of Judy Woodruffs imploring the ovine herds
to give up their wanderings into uncertain territories and return
to the fold wherein minds are soothed and left untroubled by events
they are told are beyond their ken.

But
such efforts will not avail the institutional order. Gutenberg put
the establishment on the defensive centuries ago, demonstrating
the creative consequences that flow from a loosening of monopolies
on information. The Internet — with its proliferation of websites
and bloggers, and the continuing collapse of the vertical into the
horizontal — has taken the Gutenberg revolution to exponential dimensions.
How far this will extend and what forms may arise are completely
unknown, which makes the process all the more exciting. Perhaps,
sooner than we think, we shall be witness to a new “reality” show,
wherein Hillary and Judy find themselves on an island with a group
of bloggers. Who would be the likely “survivor” in such a world?
I know upon whom I would not be betting!

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