Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday Morning Rumination: About Blogs

The mainstream media lately have been trying to tell the public what blogging is, and trying to fit it into some philosophical scheme or worldview that also includes themselves. They cannot succeed at that, and it only makes them look dumb, but ... go for it, man.

It's like this. When we were in Andalucía, we ate tapas. Tapas can be anything, fish, vegetables, something hot, cold, spicy, mild. It was explained to us in Málaga that tapas are not a kind of food, they are a way of eating. "Eating standing up" was about the best anybody could do, as far as defining the word. You go to el centro and eat little snacks standing at a bar talking with your friends, then after a while you go to the next little bar and eat standing up and talk with some different friends. You don't eat much, you socialize, you're standing up.

That's how you have to look at blogging. It isn't a way of writing, it isn't a point of view -- really, look, blogging just means that there is a way for anybody in the world to publish anything they want to, for free or cheap, and at the same time the whole world can read it. It can be crap, it can be genius, that's not the point, it's just a way to do something.

Do you remember the ditto machine? My mother used to write up the PTA newsletters and copy them in this purple gel. All the writing was purple. You could get the same page to a few dozen people that way. It was like Gutenberg on a reduced scale.

And remember, for centuries the real power of the church was that monks could write, they spent entire lives making copies of Bibles; that was pure power.

There's something really cool about information, something that changed with the invention of the printing press, though the law has never quite caught up with it. You can have a copy of information without taking anything away from the original. With things, you take it and the other person doesn't have it any more. Information, you can take it and then there are two of them.

This changes the whole concept of property, of ownership. Of course there's the mess over mp3's and downloaded movies and stuff, but really it's a fundamental principle of civilized life, the multiplicity of identical items of information, things that don't just look the same, they are the same.

You've got a tribe, and you can have a lodge meeting where the chief sits at the front facing the rest of the tribe, they call for silence, and he speaks, they listen. One speaker, many listeners. When do you suppose the first amphitheater was invented? One-to-many communication, maybe thousands at a time receiving the same message. There is a need for it, the social hierarchy requires the message of the king to be delivered to the masses, and not necessarily the other way around.

When people go into the amphitheater, they know if they're audience or performer. You sit where you belong. The headliner might sit in the audience for the opener, whatever, you know where to be. With the invention of the press, the extent to which a person could amplify their voice became, essentially, infinite. You could print your pamphlet and distribute it, and if somebody in another town wanted to, they could make a copy and distribute that. Those who could say something well, who were appreciated for their writing, were able to get the word out. Eventually, of course, control of publishing became a political issue, and the concept evolved: there is freedom of the press for those who have got one.

Now, with the Internets (did he really say that again?), anybody can go to the library and sit at the computer and log into a printing press of infinite size. You don't have to pass the in-group test to get access to a gigantic audience. You don't need the approval of some no-fun censorship committee, some silverbacks with their own investments to protect. You log on, you say something, and everybody can see it if they want to.

Of course, this means there are gazillions and gazillions of web sites out there, blogs where people write stuff -- look at MySpace, FaceBook, the news this week is that the "social network" sites have even overtaken porn as the highest-traffic sites on the Internet. And who reads that stuff? Mostly, nobody. Somebody's MySpace gets read by their friends, or people who have friended them for whatever reason. There's usually not much there in the way of content, people aren't there to say something, just to be together.

Who would've guessed that the power of computers would come in hooking them together? Remember the "personal computer" in the 1980s? I remember reading about that and thinking, why would anybody want one of those? Then I got a Commodore 64, and programmed the statistical analysis for my Masters thesis on it, and I thought it was pretty cool, but not something that would change my life, really.

Then we started finding out about Usenet, ftp, telnet, dot-profiles, and we would sit fascinated in the dark, staring at that monochrome screen, amber letters on a black background. Just seeing what other people had posted on the network.

Then Mosaic came, and the worldwide web. Just suddenly, in the middle of the nineties, there was a whole graphical, click-and-go-there network of sites, and a whole new way of thinking. Netscape came up, and Microsoft was caught totally unprepared. They'd been developing the "personal computer" for one person to use by themselves, and didn't have any idea how to capitalize on this new connectedness business. Of course, they figured it out.

There is a saying in the Internet community that "The net sees censorship as damage and routs around it." If anybody wants to control the information that goes on the network, the creator of that information will just find a different way to get it out there. So in some way the Internet is going to reflect the true feelings of the people. It cannot be regulated by some elite class of people, it will -- after the rush wears off -- stabilize into something that is natural for people, it will become whatever they want it to be.

The Montgomery County sex-ed adventure started on the Internet, really. Parents at Albert Einstein High School received a message on their Yahoo news group, announcing a meeting of "concerned parents" to discuss a new sex-ed curriculum that had just been adopted, to fight it. As I recall, the message linked to a web site,, which was the center online for a group of radicals who wanted to take over the county's school board and replace them with, uh, conservatives. There was some discussion on the Einstein news group, and some other parents suggested starting another web site, and two and a half years later you're looking at it. founding members didn't know each other in the physical world at first, we met on the Internet. (Actually, when I think about it, there are still some active members who I've never seen.)

So this electronic medium, this wide-open printing press for the people, allowed the radicals to puff up their presence, and it allowed us to organize to fight them. Most of their meetings, and most of ours, have been conducted through email and bulletin boards, web sites and newsletters.

It used to be, you had to prove yourself socially, you had to be initiated, to get an audience. There was a printing-press, or an amphitheater, and somebody owned it, and you had to work through them to get a chance to use it: they were in a position to regulate access to the public. That's all gone now. Anybody -- even you -- can create a Blogger account, make up a name, and start posting stuff. Maybe somebody'll read it, probably not. But maybe they will. And again, maybe you won't want them to. Like, I have a blog where I keep scientific notes. A couple of people have found it, but I don't publicize it, and I actually wouldn't want people to read the meanderings of my mind as I work on philosophical and scientific problems. I just want it there, to go back to.

I have an online friend who is a wild rightwing nuke-the-ragheads kind of guy from Texas, who has a nuke-the-ragheads blog that I never read, but he just started another one, where he posts, mostly, music videos. Stevie Ray Vaughan, old Beach Boys, who knows, stuff he likes. Willie and Merle. I'll bet he doesn't get much in the way of hits per day, but I don't think that's what it's about. He doesn't usually even write anything there, just posts a link to a video. They're usually good ones; we disagree on politics, and actually we disagree about whether SRV was better than Hendrix, but we do agree that those were some really good Strat players. Willie and Merle, there's no disagreement.

Mainstream press reporters come to work in the morning, get an assignment from their editor, and go out to write something for a paycheck. The company is a hierarchy, and somewhere at the top of that hierarchy there are some guys with connections to other industries, and political connections. It doesn't mean a reporter can't write an honest story, no, the media will only have an audience if people think they can believe them. But if the guy wants to keep his job, he knows what he's got to come up with. And at the end of the day, you can't trust what you read in the papers, never mind the stuff on TV.

A blog, on the other hand, can be anything. There are vain blogs that want the highest amount of traffic they can get, and they might be able to figure out how to give the public what it wants in order to attain that. And if that's what people want, that's what there will be. Because the readership is dispersed, too -- somebody like me, sitting at the kitchen table, clicks on whatever link catches their eye at the moment.

Do you remember when you switched to Google? I used to use altavista, then somebody mentioned that Google was better, and I tried it, and now I don't even know if altavista still exists. What about Wikipedia? Where'd that come from? Do you use to check rumors? I do. The rule of thumb is, better services will become more popular. But "better" is defined in the moment, we don't make checklists and evaluate web sites, we bookmark a site that has been useful to us and go back to it if we want more of the same, later.

Most bloggers don't want to make the A-list, they just write for themselves and their friends. Some, I'm sorry to say, have become too big for their britches, but again, the net will rout around them. Not to get into the power laws of social networks or anything, but there will always be a few big sites and a lot of little ones, that's just how it goes.

The Internet, then, becomes a pure implementation of ideas that have been around for more than a hundred years. What I am writing in this boring post is a direct reflection of writings by people like Charles Peirce and William James, at the turn of the twentieth century: the American pragmatists. The truth of an utterance is its cash value, its usefulness.

What has changed is that there is now no gatekeeper to control the flow of information, to make sure that truth is measured as the cash value of an utterance to him. Now, you and I decide what sites we will bookmark, what blogs we will read, and it doesn't matter what some rich guy says. I doubt you will see a reporter in the mainstream press explain that to you quite in those terms.

And so we have, again, a day of record-setting beauty in Montgomery County, Maryland. Yesterday I offered to lend my car to a neighbor who wanted to take his wife to church. It's heartbreaking, she's becoming senile, after more than sixty years of marriage. She forgets who he is sometimes, but she still likes to go to church, and he'd like to take her, but their car broke down. He's got my keys, but it doesn't look like he was able to get her out this morning; the car's still out there, by the curb. It looks like the Peruvians have their Sunday soccer games going on over at the school yard, I see the cars turning in. Some jazz lady on WPFW is singing "I Can't Stop Loving You," which started as a country and Western song and ended up as a jazz standard; she's got a big band behind her. I like Don Gibson better, thank you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


If I've said it once, I've said a million times:

You need to stop wasting your Sunday mornings and get out and engage in some physical exertion.

May 08, 2007 2:39 PM  

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