media, the problem of bloggers & mind

by Hugh

I’m usually dismissive about complaints about “bloggers,” because the usual complaints (boring, stupid, half-assed) don’t apply to the ones I read. But this interview (text and audio) with BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis talks not so much about bloggers in general, but about the actual impact popular bloggers have on media (particularly in the USA), which puts things in a different perspective. Mind you it says as much about Media as it does about bloggers.

On simplification:

It’s a wider thing than the internet, but the internet sums it up. It’s that on the surface it says that “the internet is a new form of democracy”. So what you’re seeing is a new pluralism, a new collage, a new mosaic of all sorts of different ideas that’s genuinely representative.

But if you analyse what happens, it simplifies things.

First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they’re like: they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information – they do little research of their own.

So far not so interesting, but:

What then happens is this idea of the ‘hive mind’, instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity.

The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.

and on weak-willed media and the bloggers that frighten them:

I’ve talked to news editors in America. What they are most frightened of is an assault by the bloggers. They come from the left and the right. They’re terrified if they stray one way they’ll get monstered by bloggers on the right, if they stray the other way they’ll get monstered by bloggers from the left. So they nervously try and creep along, like a big animal in Toy Story – hoping not to disturb the demons that are out there.

It leads to a sort of nervousness. The moment a media system becomes infected by nervousness it starts to decline.

and on atomisation:

So over here is the part of the internet – and therefore of the world – where there are people who think the invasion of Iraq was all about oil. Over are people who think it’s all about stopping Muslim hordes taking over our culture. And over here, it’s the neo-conservative lot who think it’s all about ideas.

Do you remember that book about intelligent buildings, how buildings work out how to stand up? That’s what’s happening now. They’re working out how to hold each other up. So you get a Balkanisation where there is no movement forward – everyone just publishes their position, stands up, and that’s it. Everything is so static.

I’m just reading a great book about the mind, called The Brain that Changes Itself about the plasticity of the brain. One interesting thing that I had never quite thought of, is that “old-style” education (a focus on memorization, on memorizing poetry, on hand-writing etc) actually has a huge impact on all sorts of things, including the brain’s ability to reason, to remember, to think in complex ways, in addition to facilities with languages and symbols. Mike wrote about inchoate blog posts recently, and while I don’t agree with the whole idea, I do think the loss of discipline, the loss of the applied, dogged intensity to make a truly important work, is a real problem. For myself, I can write a long, “interesting” blog post and feel I have contributed something intellectually worthwhile to the universe, but it’s a different matter altogether to write a reasoned complete and coherent article, as I have done a couple of times with reviews for Books in Canada. It’s painful to write something like that, and rewarding. A 40-minute blog post takes a day to transform into a really worthwhile “lasting” piece of writing.

True of all forms of art. Compare, for instance, Nora Young’s podcast Sniffer (a sort of audio sketch book of some ideas), and her CBC radio show, Spark (a 2027 minute show packed with interviews and compelling ideas). How much time do you think goes into Sniffer? How much into Spark? (Nora or Dan, if you are reading I’d be curious about the person-hours required to make a 20-minute spark episode).

It’s not that Sniffer is bad and Spark is good, but that we need to keep clear what we want out of the net and our information vectors in general: a vibrant place for exchange of ideas, AND the careful, reasoned deliberation necessary to come to nuanced conclusions about complex problems.

I have been trying to re-inject more discipline into my working life. I feel happier when I am disciplined, but man is it hard in this hyper/disconnected world I live in. Easier to whip off a few blog posts and hope that someone else finds a good use for the ideas, than sit down and write this proposal for a book about LibriVox that I have been avoiding for six months.

Back to work.