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media, the problem of bloggers & mind

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.


  1. Dan Misener Dan Misener 2007-11-23

    4 CBC people make Spark, but mostly on a part-time basis.

    Add it all up, and you get 2.6 full people weeks.

    Here’s the breakdown:

    Nora, Host – 3 days/week
    Elizabeth, Producer – 5 days/week
    Dan, Associate Producer – 4 days/week
    Tom, Associate Producer – 1 day/week

  2. Dan Misener Dan Misener 2007-11-23

    Oh yes.

    And we’re 27 minutes long (slightly longer with podcast “sponsorship messages”).

  3. Hugh Hugh 2007-11-23

    so assuming 1 person*week is 35 hrs … that’s 3.37 person*hrs per minute of audio! and the results can be heard (for ref, This American Life is about 5 person*hrs per minute). in order to get this kind of quality and richness, much work must be done. and media and the rest of us have to figure out how to protect that valuable time required to make the really good lasting stuff.

  4. Mat Mat 2007-11-23

    we need to figure out how to ensure that the quality stuff, the stuff that you rightly point out takes much time and effort to create, keeps getting produced…

    that’s tricky, because the rewards/incentives are not clear.

    did you see jaron lanier’s op ed recent (NYT i think) where he talks about the fact that the digital idealists were wrong… and that paid content must once again reign… well i fear little can be done to reverse the current momentum, but somehow we need to figure out better quality discovery (and production) facilities. this will be critical to avoid the destruction of culture that andrew keen has been going on about

  5. Hugh Hugh 2007-11-23

    i think lanier has shaken some interesting trees (have not seen the recent article), but i’m no fan of keen – i think he’s a pompous blowhard.

    i don’t think you can go to a paid model for exactly the reason britannica and NYT can’t consider themselves information distributors …info is cheap and plentiful now, who’s going to pay when it’s free over there?

    in any case the question isn’t whether newspapers are good and bloggers are bad (a la keen). the question is, how do we build media that is useful, given all the tools we have now?

    stay tuned to find out, i guess.

  6. Nora Nora 2007-11-26

    Thanks for the shout-out, Hugh. I think that the ‘scratch pad’ analogy works very well for things like blogs and hobby podcasts, and can be a good support for more sustained work. I am worried, though, that my ability to sit and focus on one thing is slipping away from me. I can almost feel it.

  7. Hugh Hugh 2007-11-27

    the interesting thing is not so much us – brought up on books, we can revert to our old selves as readers and calm thinkers, once the gadgets are put away for a day or two.

    but what of the young’uns, whose neural paths have been laid down not to catcher in the rye, but to hyper-info-overload, IM, email, facebook, cellphones, as well as grandtheftauto, WOW (and not to mention all the porn they could ever want). i think they will end up as very different humans – biologically.

    what does that mean for the human race I wonder?

  8. mir mir 2007-12-01

    An interesting parallel to the question of the value information production, is the question of information reception.

    It’s not just a matter of focusing to produce “real material” but also remembering to save energy to take in meaning.

    There is a historical trend towards the simplification of textual processes, the average newspaper 100 years ago was text heavy- and used a more complex vocabulary. The demands on a general intelligence were much greater than they are today. I can skim a blog and think I know what I am talking about, but the fact is that reading a book usually results in a more nuanced understanding.

    So we may be making more stuff, but it is not necessarily true that our capacity to take it in, or deal with complexity of meaning is following our increased production.

  9. mtl3p mtl3p 2007-12-04

    yeah – I think there’s a question of reader investment compared to writer investment. I think the onus is for the most part on information receivers to hone their skills and to realize through experience that learning takes investment, concentration, space.

    I was wondering – You saw that the title was a reference to the quote at the bottom, right? Ironically, Calvin self-published his first work and it fell like a rock. He “blogged it” in the parlance of the times. So both shame in doing what he says we shouldn’t do, and acceptance that it’s no different from the course that he took in his youth.

  10. Hugh Hugh 2007-12-05

    @mir: “An interesting parallel to the question of the value information production, is the question of information reception.”

    … yes, surely they go hand in hand ..and i agree, the web is great for information, surface and new ideas, pointers, creating connections – it’s not so good for taking the time to really understand longer-term implications. (both as a writer, and a reader).

    @mtl3p: i guess i think it rests evenly on both sides: as a reader, i must make time to read deeper, longer texts. as a writer, i must take the time to really think thru and craft what i am writing.

    but neither of those things exclude the more surface, immediate info inputs/outputs that the web allows. it just means that I have to make space in my life to do the other deeper stuff.

    which is why i was uncomfortable with calvin’s “post” (!) about inchoate writing: i disagree with him, when he says:

    “…I should want to bring forth no embryos at all if I could produce only premature ones; in fact, I should rather abandon them as abortions than bring them forth before their time…”

    I think there is value in the premature embryo, especially if you consider it in the context of a huge swirl of ideas: someone else might gestate it and bring forth that idea in a fuller way. Or I might, a year or two later.

    The mistake, for me, is thinking that the inchoate is *enough* (I mean, for me). The inchoate is valuable to me to the extent that it helps make something bigger, more important and more lasting.

    of course the big problem is that the inchoate is just so much damned *easier.*

  11. mtl3p mtl3p 2007-12-05

    yeah. premature is good. but it’s not enough. good.

    “i guess i think it rests evenly on both sides: as a reader, i must make time to read deeper, longer texts. as a writer, i must take the time to really think thru and craft what i am writing.”

    It’s funny. In the last 2-3 years I’m doing a much better job at reading (which mostly has meant *not* reading, or reading much less with more attention). My writing hasn’t received any more attention though.

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