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post #1 of 5 (permalink) Old 06-25-2006, 07:31 AM Thread Starter
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Goodbye, Blog
The friend of information but the enemy of thought.
by Alan Jacobs

About two years ago, my online life began to be centered on a computer application: not my word processing program, or my email program, but my rss news reader. rss (which apparently stands for Really Simple Syndication, though there is some debate about that) is a technology for capturing news headlines and summaries of stories, or their first few sentences, from websites. A site that offers these headlines is said to be providing news "feeds" to those who ask for them. The advantage of such syndication is that you can scan many headlines quickly, and open in your browser only the ones you really want to read.

Using NetNewsWire, I found I could get news from dozens of sources every day and thereby keep myself informed on pretty much everything I am interested in. For me the most exciting features of NetNewsWire were two: first, I could set the frequency with which I wanted to check my sites for new items, as often as every half-hour; and second, I could organize my sites in folders. Pretty soon I had a Technology folder, a Macintosh folder, a News folder, a Culture folder, a Literature folder, a Christianity folder, and so on.

Some of these sites were from what online writers call the msm (for "mainstream media"), but most of them were blogs, and with blogs you never know when someone is going to post—except for Glenn Reynolds, the InstaPundit, who posts all day every day. Normal people might write an entry three out of four days, and then go on a fortnight's hiatus; it gets tiresome to peek in at the website every day. NetNewsWire did the peeking for me, and let me know when it found something.

At first my interest was in news—whether about technology or politics or culture—but increasingly I became excited by the idea that the blogosphere could be a great venue for the exchange and development of ideas. One of the first blogs I got really attached to was called Invisible Adjunct. Now, alas, defunct, it was written by a woman who worked as an adjunct (that is, part-time and temporary) faculty member at a New York university, and her entries generated a fascinating conversation about the way the American university works, the way it should work, and how to get from Point A to Point B. I would read the site and think, "Yes, this is the way revolutions get started! Spontaneous communities of committed, thoughtful people testing their ideas against one another—iron sharpening iron!" Granted, I was excitable in those early days, and talk of "revolution" was certainly misplaced, but I think I was right to be intrigued. As a member of the professoriate, I had long since gotten frustrated with the game-playing and slavishly imitative scholarship of the official academic world—all choreographed in advance by the ruthless demands of the tenure system—and I thought that the blogs could provide an alternative venue where more risky ideas could be offered and debated, where real intellectual progress might take place outside the System.

And sometimes this happens. Last year, on the group blog Crooked Timber (crookedtimber.org), which is largely written by political philosophers and social scientists, there was a fascinating discussion of the gifted (but in my judgment disturbingly perverse) fantasy novelist China Miéville. Not only did several of the Crooked Timber bloggers write brief essays about Miéville, but also Miéville himself responded with a generous and thoughtful essay of his own. The debate was far more interesting, and more genuinely reflective, than any discussion about literature I can remember participating in or even witnessing in a formal academic setting. That fantasy writing still, despite all the canon-bashing of the last twenty years, has a faintly disreputable air among many English professors added to the freshness of the debate—as did the fact that none of the bloggers was an English professor. The whole conversation was a small victory for reading, a reminder that the importance of some books is seen from the excitement they create among thoughtful people, in this case people whose jobs require them to write about something else but who were moved or intrigued or excited or troubled by something China Miéville wrote and who therefore had to respond to it. (The experiment was recently repeated with an equally interesting symposium on Susanna Clarke's remarkable novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

But this sort of thing happens all too rarely in the blogosphere, at least in part because of what Laurence Lessig calls the "architecture" of the online world, and more specifically of blogs. Several years ago Lessig wrote one of the definitive books about the Internet, Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace. In it he tried to call a halt to all the fruitless debates about the "nature" of the internet. Is it its nature to be democratic or tyrannical, managerial or anarchic, or what? Lessig's answer was that the internet doesn't have a nature, that what it turns out to be will depend on the way it's built, the code in which it is written—its digital architecture.

Whatever one thinks about the structure of the internet as a whole, it is becoming increasingly clear that the particular architecture of the blogosphere is the chief impediment to its becoming a place where new ideas can be deployed, tested, and developed. Take, for instance, the problem of comments.

The industry-standard blog architecture calls for something like this: a main area on the page where the blogger's own posts are presented, with the newest post at the top of the page; then, at the left or right or both, various supplements: links to other sites, personal information about the blogger, and so on. At the bottom of each post will be the hyperlinked word "comments," usually followed by a parenthesis indicating the number of responses to the post: click on the word and you get to see all those comments. That's where the real conversation is supposed to take place. And sometimes it does; but often it doesn't—or rather, the conversation just gets started and then peters out before it can really become productive. And this happens not because of inertia, but largely because the anatomy of a blog makes a serious conversation all but impossible.

Imagine this scenario: one Thursday morning you read an interesting post on a political blog about the torture of suspected terrorists by U.S. soldiers. You agree with the main thrust of the post, but think the writer has overlooked an important point, so you post a comment that says so. You then wait to see what response your idea elicits. The next few comments are by people who think that anyone who criticizes the government on this point longs for the return of Saddam Hussein to power and rejoices in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and by other people who think the height of incisive political commentary is the coinage "Bushitler." You expect this sort of thing, you have learned to scan right past it in search of genuine reflection. Eventually someone—maybe the author of the original post, maybe someone else—responds to your claim, negatively let's say. You quickly defend your position, explaining it in more detail because more detail reveals that your view is not subject to the criticism that has been offered; but now you have to go to work, or pick up the kids from school; you'll check back later to see what further response you have elicited.

But life is busy. You can't check back until Saturday morning, and by that time the comment thread has died out. Maybe you did get a second response, maybe you didn't, but in any case you note that the last comment in the thread was posted on Friday afternoon. On many blogs the comments to a given post are "closed" after a few days—no one is allowed to make further comments—usually because that helps to prevent the accumulation of comment spam, but also because so many threads degenerate into name-calling that the blog administrator has to shoo the belligerents along to another venue. And in any case both the blogger and the commenters have moved along to other posts, other ideas, other conversations.

Or consider this: what if you come across some new information, a week or a month later, that sheds significant light on the debate? You could, of course, send an email to the original blogger asking him or her to take a look at this new evidence; but whether the debate gets renewed will depend on whether the blogger decides to start a new comment thread; the old one will be dead and gone, such that, even in the unlikely event that comments are still open on it, the chances of anyone looking back into that Paleolithic era are slim indeed.

More: http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2006/003/17.36.html

Last edited by Botnst; 06-25-2006 at 07:43 AM.
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post #2 of 5 (permalink) Old 06-25-2006, 07:43 AM Thread Starter
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edited the middle out of the sequence and...
Ending thus:

As I think about these architectural deficiencies, and the deficiencies of my own character, I find myself meditating on a passage from a book by C. S. Lewis. In his great work of literary history, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis devotes a passage to what he describes, with a certain savageness, as "that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation." For Lewis, the issues that divided Catholics and Protestants, that led to bloodshed all over Europe and to a seemingly permanent division of Christians from one another, "could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure." Instead, thanks to the prevalence of that recent invention the printing press, and to the intolerance of many of the combatants, deep and subtle questions found their way into the popular press and were immediately transformed into caricatures and cheap slogans. After that there was no hope of peaceful reconciliation.

On a smaller scale, the same problems afflict the intellectual and moral environments of the blogs. There is no privacy: all conversations are utterly public. The arrogant, the ignorant, and the bullheaded constantly threaten to drown out the saintly, and for that matter the merely knowledgeable, or at least overwhelm them with sheer numbers. And the architecture of the blog (and its associated technologies like rss), with its constant emphasis on novelty, militates against leisurely conversations. It is no insult to the recent, but already cherished, institution of the blogosphere to say that blogs cannot do everything well. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.
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post #3 of 5 (permalink) Old 06-25-2006, 08:14 AM
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This is why I both like and dislike this forum. We do allow threads to stay up and current, to float to the top [sometimes years later]. But the name calling, of which I sometimes participate, is the bad part.

I do think everyone learns something from the threads, even when there is big disagreement, sometimes more when the disagreement as everyone gets out the big guns and lays down their best info.

The other place that I hang is FARK.COM which is a much more savage and blistering pace than BWOT but there is a tremendous amount to learn there. Just got to always wear a cup.


Being smart is knowing the difference, in a sticky situation between a well delivered anecdote and a well delivered antidote - bear.
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post #4 of 5 (permalink) Old 06-25-2006, 09:13 AM
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This forum offers better than average mechanics - meaning retention of threads, organization and as of late, the ability to handle a lot of traffic. The jack-in-the-box responses from some are often annoying - it would be better if some of these responses were the result of some thoughtful effort to explain their viewpoint instead of just a meaningless ejaculation from some special organ that can generate an endless supply of political splooge without expending an erg of mental energy.

These internet debates and discussions have revealed a lot of apparently "normal" human behavior patterns that were previously foriegn to me. Like multiple personalities, each with its own on-line identity from the same individual. Like parading around on the internet isn't annonymous enough using any identity. Or the need to have "credibilty" on one of these forums outside the individual logic and meaninfulness of each post. Or the demand for credentials from anonymous internet identities without faces or any other features to base a real human identity on and connect to the displayed credentials. The fact that such credentials are actually meaningless in the real world should make it apparent they are completely worthless in the environment created on any blog or bulletin board on the internet.

Overall the benefits outweigh the detractions as I am able to see some of the points of view that are so foriegn to me I would never have stumbled upon them in real life. it is also a source of entertainment and at times comfort - sometimes to find like thinking people out there, and sometimes to just collect that ejaculate and throw it back. At other times it is too tempting to peel away some of the layers of veneer used to hide the real person behind the internet persona, and then I fall into the trap of baiting and name calling. Like I said, overall it is fun or I would't log on anymore. Jim
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post #5 of 5 (permalink) Old 06-26-2006, 08:05 PM
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Originally Posted by Botnst
Goodbye, Blog
The friend of information but the enemy of thought.
by Alan Jacobs

More: http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2006/003/17.36.html
A few decades ago, before the internet was commonplace, I spent long hours watching TV. I soon realized that most of my time in front of the TV screen was a waste of time. Back then, NOVA was in my opinion, the most fascinating and informative documentary. In the past decade, especially, the last seven years, I watched less TV but found myself spending an enormous amount of time in front of a computer screen. Initially, I used it primarily for email correspondence. Nowadays, I use it as my primary news outlet and as a replacement for my old magazine subscriptions.
I disagree with the notion that the Blog is the enemy of thought. Its elemental construct is such that it can be molded to suit the Administrators' design.

Mi$ter Right.

Last edited by offroadwarrior; 06-26-2006 at 08:50 PM.
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