A journalist writing a book on the ongoing development of the web recently asked me for some Big Thoughts on the relationship between new technology and ideas. Rather than attempt that, here are some Small Thoughts that I hope amount to at least the sum of their parts.
In one sense, the web is a lot like the world: filled with good and evil, dumb and smart, unified in some ways and radically diverse in other ways, and way too large to characterize in anything like a sweeping statement. It has also taught us much about the world we did not know.
In another sense, the web is not at all like the world because the government does not dominate it. Yes, there are .gov websites, but they exist in a cooperative relationship among all the others, and not as master of them. For the most part, people go where they want, read what they want, and do what they want. The order we witness — from the massive reference sources and free offerings to the immense commercial apparatus that knows no borders — is a product of voluntary cooperation.
What enormous beauty all this human energy has produced! A daily, hourly, minute-by-minute marvel of order and production. It grows and grows, with millions, billions, of people and decisions involved and yet the capacity always expands to produce something no government could possibly have imagined, much less designed.
The web is not a perfect world. It allows sin, vice, degradation, extortion, and every manner of evil — but every bad thing you can name is matched by a more powerful good thing: faith, reason, learning, art, scholarship, and the possibilities of peaceful human cooperation, are all on display as never before.
As in the world, there is crime on the web. But it is mostly managed, discouraged, deterred, and otherwise contained through market innovation, not the police power. The web isn’t perfect, but it seems to call forth the best competitive and cooperative spirits in all people to yield something that benefits everyone.
Given this near-perfect market setting, we should not be surprised about the ubiquity of libertarian ideas online. That’s a natural result of the libertarian method of the medium itself.
We have learned, for example, just how pent up was the demand for politically radical ideas. What is called mainstream and what is called radical turns out to be artificial, wholly dependent on the particular views held by the opinion elite. But it says nothing about what smart people really believe, what majority opinion is, or how far regular people are willing to go to question the status quo. It turns out that opinion which urges a complete rethinking of public affairs has a far vaster market than any of us believed.
I started, during the war on Serbia, to share interesting links with friends. But then my own personal email list became too long. It occurred to me that perhaps people I don’t know might be interested in these links. Thus was born my public site, just an interface to display things I saw (this was pre-blog). Then I started publishing people’s thoughts, my own thoughts, and the next thing I know, I’m the editor of one of the most trafficked centers of political and economic opinion in the world.
Many others can tell a similar story. How has the response been? Of course I get hate mail. That’s what you expect what you say surprising things like, for example, that public libraries ought to be shut down or that the nation-state is an unneeded menace to civilization. No surprise that some people take offense. What is more shocking to me are the vast numbers who write to say: well, you have made me rethink everything. For many, it is enough to draw their attention to a new tradition of thought, a new way of imagining the world.
Just the contact with readers alone is a revelation. In the old days of print publications, we had no real means of discovering where the line was, no way of knowing what people accept as their ideological starting point, what the response is to a particular line of thinking, what the possibilities are in terms breaking out of conventional categories.
Thinking back, we would work to get articles in the Los Angeles Times or smaller circulation papers. We would try for top journals. We would push and push for regular news magazines. But of course you had to deal with editors who were very suspicious of libertarian ideas. They regarded us as kooks, or, more likely, worried that they would be regarded as kooks for failing to recognize us as kooks. So the culture of print tended to work against us.
What was most demoralizing was the supposed payoff of success. Once we did get into print, we could look at the page and be happy about it, but that was about it. To send the article to interested parties required copy machines and postage stamps. To make sure people remembered the article a month or two from now, you had to depend on hand-assembled periodical guides printed every six months and delivered by truck to the libraries. As for reader response, even the largest venues would net half a dozen letters. Actually, if you received six letters on an article you wrote, you knew you had struck a nerve.
The really big change has been to bring producers of opinion together with consumers of opinion. The disconnect that has existed between the two since the beginning of time is suddenly all but ended. Writers are accountable. Reputation, rhetorical power, logic, and quality: these are everything. Readers don’t mind out-of-the-box thinking; in fact, they love it. If you produce junk or go over the edge, however, people will stop reading you or taking you seriously. This is the worst punishment, because you know that it is self-inflicted.
The prospect of connecting to real people has had a huge impact on academia, which is now filled with bloggers in all areas. Time was when academics feared writing for the popular press because they believed their colleagues would look down on them. But we have a new generation of professors who came of age in the age of the web. They used it to write their dissertations, they lived on email lists in grad school, wrote for online publications all through their studies, and see no reason why they should suddenly shut up now that they are teaching.
Why limit teaching to the classroom? Why not teach the world? And so it is, with many professors now choosing to distribute their thoughts in the widest possible way. After all, their ability to think is their primary marketable product, and the web is the place where intellectuals can interact with the broadest possible community of their choosing. As a result, the culture of academia is changing. Bloggers are no longer looked down upon, but often emerge as the stars in their department. Reducing the isolation of the academic community is not a terrible thing.
The impact on students is impossible to overstate. The large college library that aspires to hold everything needed for all studies has become an expensive dinosaur. Physical libraries of the future will serve only niche markets. Online resources have been growing for years, but we are at the point when most research projects for undergrads can be done online, and it is doubtful that any projects for the highest level can be conducted in absence of the web.
The web will not save academia, civilization, or the world. It is a tool and nothing more. What energizes it is the human mind — millions of human minds actually. If academia, civilization, and the world are saved, the web will deserve a good share of the credit because it is the best system for communicating and transmitting ideas to ever come along in the history of the world.
The liberal tradition has always taught us that the main job of every person who cares about civilization is to discover and teach what is true. The most flattering thing that can be said of the new technologies is that they make that task vastly easier than ever before. The rest is up to us.