Sunday 21 October 2007

The Blog - An Instrument of Truth & World Peace?

Dedicated to the misunderstood.

Where It's At
I want you to listen to what I'm saying. This blog, this medium, this computer, allows you to do that if you want, and it allows me to talk to you if I want. When we stop to think about it, that is truly an incredible thing. That someone as far away as you are from me, in distance, in background, in personality, in economic circumstance perhaps, can actually sit down and share thoughts, ideas, opinions, and stories. Forget e-mail, that we can only send to those whose addresses we know. Forget instant messaging, where communication in real time doesn't give us a chance sometimes to collect our thoughts, or take back what we've said. The blog is where it's at.

Move Over, Kings
When else in our history could you sit down comfortably, in an environment of your own choosing, and talk to your whole world? There have been people in the public eye -- queens, kings, and priests through to politicians, artists, athletes and champions of industry -- who have been able to command large and captive audiences, if they knew how to and had jobs that allowed them to. Some of them have even been great. But now, with a computer and an Internet connection, everyone can do it. Now that we have this incredible tool to speak to each other directly, what will become of those people, this open cabal of illuminati, whom we once needed to show us all that life could be, to interpret its elusive pulse as a rhythm that we could understand and, if not follow, at least dream of following? Could this capacity to speak to the masses that each of us now has available mean we can all be great now, that we the loyal subjects can step in front of those used to owning the platform and enjoy our day in the sun? Among those of us for whom communication is the key to life, isn't that the ultimate aspiration, to live like those golden children whose work, whose day job, is to simply live their lives communicating through their chosen medium? To blog as a calling, to play as a living, to sit comfortably on your choice of throne and write basically what you want, is just about as good as it gets. As more and more people figure that out, and figure out how to do it, there are going to be a lot of changes in those of us doing it and those of us reading it. With the amount of people this implies, that means changes in the world.

Wisdom of Crowds

A hundred ten million people can't be all wrong any more than they can be all right, but they must be on to something. There are blogs about everything from daily instances of unnecessary quotation marks to blogs not only about but by cats. There are blogs about blogging, even blogs about blogs about blogging. Bloggers complain regularly that they forego important life pursuits, such as family, work, exercise, and even sex, as they hunch over their keyboards broadcasting their own unique take on things to the world at large. But if, in fact, the medium is the message, and it is the existence of blogging itself that is worthy of consideration, what message is it that we can glean from the birth and subsequently explosive growth of the weblog? Have we stepped back to wonder about what the messsage the existence of the blog as an entity can teach us? Even if the medium isn't the most important message, and what we say is as important as how we say it, it's a safe assumption that just about anything that anyone has to say about anything in the world right now has probably been said, or is about to be said, on a blog. That, in itself, is pretty important.

The Envy of Plato
As a living work of expression and personal discovery, the blog has no equal. At its best, the blog is an open-ended narrative that can help you work through and perhaps even validate everything you know and believe. It can allow you to explore, discuss, hear criticism of, and then refine your ideas on a scale that Plato would have envied. Even at its worst, when it is used for pursuits we would rather not even think about, let alone read about, it is a window into worlds that our paternal cultural guardians, so concerned about our brittle sensibilities, never allowed us to see. Anything anywhere that we want to know and is currently known by people is now reachable in the space of a few coordinated hand movements, so that we have everything we need to teach ourselves enough to support, and improve upon, any of our opinions. This doesn't mean that we do know everything, but it does mean that we sure can try.

Meet Me in the 'Sphere
If you are new to blogs, you will be both encouraged and discouraged to learn that the blog allows a person with little or no technical knowledge to build a personal or professional showcase that, only a few years ago, would have cost a month's wages, invested either in a computer science diploma or a web designer's services. If you are a veteran of blogs or social networking, you know that a well-aimed feed reader makes you ten times more informed about just about everything than even the most committed newspaper junkie. Both communities, those for whom a computer is an instrument of enslavement and those for whom it is an instrument of discovery, have developed blissfully separate from, and sometimes even superior to, each other, but they are coming together. That meeting point is the blogosphere.

Sources in Check
Among those who have not yet fallen victim to its charms, one criticism of the blogosphere is that there are no fact checkers, and that looking for information of readable quality is like searching through the proverbial haystack for that needle of truth. Even once you've found the information you're interested in, the blogger's expertise is often questioned. For the polemically inclined however, who choose what to believe based as much on the quality of the argument as on the authority of its source, dubious at the best of times, the blog leaves no excuse for a weak argument, or at least for a lack of supporting criteria. Bibliographic sources that are a drive to the library away when a book is the medium, or definitions of words that were once the realm of academics, are a click away on the Internet.

True Craftsmanship
For those who see creating as a craft, as something to be practiced and perfected, a blog is a learning organism unlike any other. Unlike a novel or film script, with its beginnings, structure, and endings, the blog does not stop learning the moment its final print run is complete. Show me a writer who would not change at least some parts of even his or her most cherished work. Books may get editions, and movies may get a director's cut on DVD, but the blog post has the luxury of always being the best it can be, at least if its creator is more interested in fixing the argument than holding the opinion that created it. If you are accustomed to listening as much as talking, and recognize that, given equal weight, the two together will balance out towards understanding, the opportunity is there to create something not only truly current and truly wonderful, but also currently and wonderfully true.

Content with Filters
The argument against this medium as a vehicle for a new kind of message says that the finished product that is put away for good once it is complete is a good thing, in that such a product, whether it be a book or a movie or any other creation, must then be taken to such perfect form that the creators only get one chance, and it is a perfect snapshot of a moment in time. Further, the more arduous creative process that goes into building something as complex as a film acts as its own content filter. If something isn't good enough, a whole bunch of people aren't going to spend a whole bunch of money to try to realize a flawed dream. Both points are certainly true, and I'm a huge fan of many of these completed works, as is almost everyone else. I agree and admit to the fact that, even from a point of view of getting to real truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whatever that is, there are many instances where what is popular and what is true overlap.

The Distorted Lens
But, it's also important, I would say vital, to remember that, in order to create that snapshot, many agents were involved. To publish a novel requires researchers, proofreaders, editors, printers, typesetters, artists, and of course (gulp) lawyers. For a film, look at the credits that roll at the end of even a B-movie for a pretty good indicator of how many people it takes to bring together a production of even the most modest scale. Even documentary books, movies, and television, with no commercial ties whatsoever, that aim nobly at truth, are, with a few notably refreshing exceptions, filtered through a cultural lens, which comes further out of focus the more individuals are peering through the lens. In other words, even these valiant stabs at truth start from one step further back of the stance assumed by first-person account of the blog, which is itself only one step back from where we stand with the spontaneous generation of speech from our thoughts that we wield, sometimes like swords, on a daily basis.

Of Dogs & Wolves
Not that the blog itself is immune from this potential distortion of truth. A blog that is written for the purposes of making money is similar to literature or music or art whose main purpose is commercial. This does not mean that it cannot be very good, both in readability and education, but it does mean that, regardless of how good it is or how many people read it, it is to some extent bound by ropes that keep it tethered to the ground where it is obliged to reside, saved for its own good from running off into the wilderness of thought . That isn't a problem if the creature in question is content to be someone's pet, and live the comfortable life that that entails, but it is if the creature is a wolf.

Objects of Love

Then again, everyone has to make a living, right? Everyday life is a balance between truth and economics; isn't it understood that even the truest message may come with an ulterior motive? Though there are always enough stories of brilliant marketing ploys that required little or no investment to keep the content creators from complete despondency, the fact of the matter is that it's pretty hard to get noticed without either compromising at least some of your integrity or parting with even more of your money. As always, those who know how to attract eyes are usually more interested in the pockets into which reach the hands that are corporeally attached to those eyes, whereas those just interested in the eyes are staring into them so intently that they have fallen in love and forgotten all about paying the rent.

Paradigm Shift

What I find amusing, on days when it isn’t driving me nuts, is how much credence is given to someone’s point of view just because someone else has seen fit to publish their work. Don’t get me wrong; I am not taking issue with all published work; there is some fine work indeed out there, more than can ever be measured. It's just that I believe that anything on which anyone has worked hard to communicate is worthy of an audience. I think everything should be published, that everyone should have access to everything. What amuses me then, is how much status and attention we assign to those who have merely accomplished a task like any other, and have been rewarded for it by attention and remuneration. For example, every new author knows and dreads the question “Are you published yet?” To me, this question belongs to an old paradigm, one that was used before everyone could publish and which is no longer particularly valid. With the incredible opportunities now available for developing and distributing ideas, the current version of this question, both more accurate and less likely to provoke dread, should be “How do you publish?”

Freaks in the Shadows

Isn't the real question about blogs or books or movies, or any form of content which aims for truth but has money behind its development, whether the fact that this content feeds someone's kids makes it a barrier to the true pursuit of knowledge, whatever that may be. It's not new news that everything is censored to some extent, some for good reason, some simply because it is unpalatable to one influential pair of eyes and ears somewhere along the long line of production that it takes to bring content to the eyes and ears of a potential audience. What harm is there in that as long as the message doesn't get so commercial that it interferes with our enjoyment or understanding? After all, when you take away the money, all you get is a bunch of kooks and weirdos who have nothing important to say in the first place, right? How can censorship be bad if it keeps those freaks in the shadows where they belong?

Numbers Game

What the blog attempts to do as an institution is to settle the censorship debate once and for all, allowing direct access where before there was just a numbers game, whose organizers were so adept at stacking the odds against us finding something that might truly disturb us, lest we wake from our peaceful slumber. The numbers themselves haven't changed; for every pedophile harming a child, or thinking about it, there are a thousand people disgusted by him and one child advocate or law enforcement officer, hopefully more, working to save that same child. The difference now is that there has been born a direct forum for the pedophile to be understood, other than through his actions. The power and influence of the medium will be decided by whether or not he takes that opportunity and, if he does, what happens to the rest of us when he does.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

I am not saying that, in order to achieve enlightenment, we should all go out and immerse ourselves in all that is distasteful to our personal sensibilities, that we should revel in all the human suffering that is everywhere in this world, or that we should encourage those who are responsible for some of that suffering to start sharing in droves their sordid fantasies. This is not about what should happen at all, it is about what is happening, and will continue to happen whether we want it to or not. And, as it happens, it pays to remember the old saying about the devil you know. What the blog does is to present us with an opportunity to get to know that devil, to explore society's demons, as mirrors of our own, with less interpretative bias than we've ever had before. The uncomfortable truth we may find is that, in the depths of depravity and tragedy, can be found great humanity. It is the humanity in the monster that enables him to understand his victims deeply enough to draw them in, and it is a very profound humanity that makes him follow his compulsions with complete disregard for the condemnation by society and even self that following them will inevitably bring. The question we face when we look that deeply, is whether the violence in our own souls that allows us to judge him with equal wrath is different in its fundamental nature from the seed of his own, and whether it was simply a trick of circumstance that pointed ours in a direction less destructive. With no illuminati to frame the discussion and guide us in the direction they would have us follow, we might even find some light in the darkness of even the most tortured soul.

Same Old Same Old

As the blog evolves, that is certainly the future of those who control the apparatus through which our ideas flow. They are already starting to learn, as the governments of the world did long ago, that the possession of certain information is as much a burden as it is a vehicle for influencing behaviour. Too light a touch means anarchy, too heavy a hand means a tyranny, and history tells us that either structure is doomed to collapse. The question of which side to take in the witch hunt, that of the mob or of the witch, will become more and more difficult to answer as the medium explodes. For every argument that expression of unorthodox views and fantasies provides a more acceptable outlet than criminal activity and is therefore benign, there is the argument that those easily led will find a shape and a direction for unexpressed urges that might never have taken form.

The Faceless Foe

I'm on neither side, and both, but I know that, as long as we allow those who bear a faceless similarity to those who may have wronged us to incite our wrath, we will never be able to properly prevent them from deeply affecting us. It is one thing for the parent of the child who has been victimized to want to tear out the heart of the perpetrator, or even to go ahead and actually do so; it is quite another for a listener hearing of such an offense to apply that sense of being deeply wronged to anyone whom he might choose to associate with the perpetrator. Being a parent, I am disgusted at what is done to children, but, if I want to be of any use in the prevention of future atrocities, possibly on my own children, my only hope is to understand why they happen, and therefore understand the people who make them happen. This will equip me much better to prevent this from touching my own life and, even in the event of the unthinkable, to better cope with it if it does.

The Rubberneckers' Parade

When we do not like what we see through one of these windows into other worlds, should we turn away in fear, or should we watch and learn? The answer, once again, is not a question of what should be done. Like motorists at a passing accident, we are compelled to peek at the carnage. If this involuntary urge to wallow makes us dirty, even filthy, to the extent that it even haunts our dreams and channels our emotions, it will also make us wiser, if we let it. We point fingers at our governments, our corporations, and our moral enemies, even as we possess the tools that make hiding the act of doing harm to another person increasingly difficult, especially if the victim can be given the same tools to broadcast to the world. The muck is already washing right off and leaving us with a new understanding of those less nice or those less fortunate.

The Ideal Tools...

What are we doing with that understanding? Well, I know what Jimmy Wales is doing, envisioning an ideal world in which almost all of the traditional barriers to knowledge have been removed. I know what a lot of bloggers are doing, too. Each, in his or her way, is trying to change the world. Our current technological abilities, a previously unimaginable mosaic of podcasts, satellite transmitters, and $100-dollar laptops could, properly wielded, banish such obstacles as illiteracy, remoteness, and immobility. How long ago was the elimination of these barriers conceived as setting up the conditions for an ideal world? With all this capability, do we now live in a world that is ideal?

For An Ideal World

I do not have the authority to answer that question, and I do not have the discipline or memory required to look at this scientifically, as I am inclined to work backward from insight rather than work forward from evidence, but I'm pretty sure that we've never had in our hands this powerful a tool to make it more ideal. The human tendency to reveal oneself and seek to be reached means that we back into self discovery through the blog, sometimes using anonymity to plumb considerable depths, but craving at the same time the personal affirmation that will come from acceptance of our message. The more people discovering themselves and the more people accepting the results of those discoveries, the fewer people there are wandering around with blood in their eyes and guns in their hands. With the sheer numbers both producing and consuming content through the same medium, there is not only a removal of the distinction between the writer and the reader, but also of the victim and the predator. If you used to just watch the news, and now you can report it or even be part of the story itself, your relationship to the entire community has changed.

Tabula Rasa
For those who do choose to be a part of the story, there is a tendency to pour out thoughts about themselves and their worlds that they would never do anywhere else or with anyone else. The uninitiated may wonder how anyone could ever feel comfortable airing such intimate views, even under an anonymous moniker, in this medium, with who knows whose eyes upon you. In fact, this should not be surprising at all. The human animal still has extremely powerful physical instincts, and certain types of human contact and communication are as difficult now as they have ever been, if not more. On the other hand, a screen doesn't talk back, won't judge you, and lets you re-consider how you've expressed yourself, until you have your message just the way you want it.


Those unfamiliar with the medium may also wonder whether there is even an audience for people talking intimately about themselves and sharing their thoughts almost unfiltered with total strangers? Of course there is. You're reading this now, aren't you? At the heart of the matter, what is most personal is most human, and what is most human is most universal. In other words, the most deeply personal messages should have the most universal appeal. If I do not have something in common with what I am reading, or viewing, or hearing, then I will not be drawn to engage with it.

What's At Stake?
All that said, the tragedy of the blogger is that, if you build it, there is certainly no guarantee that they will come. Those of us who invest our time in the pursuit of truth in this medium hold out hope that it is the quality of the content that will carry the message to those who need to hear it, even as we see that the blogosphere is being taken over already by the same forces that captured other forms of media before it. The tsunami of money, sex, and mediocrity, at least two-thirds of which courses through my own veins with some intensity on an alarmingly regular basis, advances daily on the medium and may even seem to some to be drowning it, but the blogger-as-believer does not believe that, for the most part, this wave represents the best that we can achieve. This noble surfer holds out hope that the wave is not yet beyond a well-executed ride and graceful kick out, that the weirdos and witches might yet find a way to mount the steep hill and make themselves heard. Either that, or he is just foolish enough to believe, knowing what we all know and seeing what we all have seen, that the witches, with everything at stake, will finally have their time to stand proudly in the flickering torchlight and address the mob.

Go Tell It In The Village

Perhaps that is not such a foolish impression. Perhaps the speed at which our media creep closer and closer to their initial purpose, attempting to address all members of a community, is beginning to overtake the speed at which our communities are growing. The much-discussed global village, let's remember, is actually a very simple concept of community. If you live in a village, a real village, where everyone knows who you really are, and there are no secrets, you know that, in the village, everyone is a part of everyone else's life. There is little that you can do or say, especially if it is out of the ordinary, that will escape the notice of your community. But what you could once communicate verbally to your community when it was the size of a village, you can now communicate digitally to your larger community, which in essence is your world. With the ability of this medium to translate, reference, and access multiple delivery mechanisms, perhaps we have indeed reached a stage where a message resonant with humanity at large can be communicated globally.

Pipe Dreams

Of course, it is one thing to address the global community in theory, another thing to get enough distribution through any particular medium to actually do it. 1.24 billion people may be Internet users, and a whole bunch of them may read blogs, but I'm pretty sure, with 1.6 million blog posts going up every day, they aren't all reading my blog, or won't ever. Nevertheless, I hold fast to the pipe dream, common among content creators, that the quality of the message will eventually ensure mass viewership. Even if this is only true for those with a lifespan of 312 years, or for those whose luck is as good as their content, I choose to take my stand with those noble artistic souls, even as I know that the delusion brought to life by the pipe's contents usually wears off long before any of us can actually afford to replenish the stash.

Two Kinds Of People

There are two kinds of sentences that start with "There are two kinds of people...". There is the kind that manages to be completely true in a specific sense, when followed by a clause containing a clearly defined group and another clause that is not that defined group, as with "There are two kinds of people, those who have been to Timbuktu, and those who haven't." The other kind manages to be completely false, because it is used in a general sense, when there are no clauses to define the groups, as in "There are two kinds of people". When it gets tricky is when you try to define, in the first clause, a group that cannot be clearly defined, as in "There are two kinds of people, people who are cool and people who are not cool."

Grey Area

What makes the blog a potential instrument of both truth and positive social change can be encapsulated in the following version of that ambiguous sentence structure:

There are two kinds of people; those in your community, and those not in your community.

More than ever before, with the reader as writer, the subject as monarch, the viewer as reporter, and the mob member as witch, these are one and the same.

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1 comments (I love them - please leave one here):

Anonymous said...

Very nicely argued and written. Great post!