Saturday, March 21, 2009

Michael Duffy, the intertubes, democratization, Matthew Hindman, and hindsight as a guide to the future

It's the business of conservatives to be wrong. 

Times change, but conservatives believe in eternal truths. There once was a time when Christianity was a radical, rebellious, revolutionary religion (yep, the four R's), and conservative Romans got in a huff, trying to save their gods. Driven by delusions, the nobles muttered about the fall of Rome being tied to the fall of the gods, while realists like Caesar sensibly went about the business of turning themselves into gods.

Then Christianity became sedentary, and when the Renaissance came along, the Holy Roman Church became the most conservative and foolish of bodies. If we'd left it to the Popes, the sun would still be circling around the earth and Columbus would have sailed off the edge of the world.

Since then the Popes have never stopped trying to be actively stupid when it came to the arts and the sciences. A fig leaf isn't what you need when trying to see the human body and the human mind clearly. Nor an Inquisition or as extensive a list of banned books as anyone could manage right up to the time of Chairman Mao - another great believer in people believing in god. His god had of course written a little red book as profound and sensible as a Catholic catechism.

There's still a gaggle of social conservatives who try to insist on all kinds of nonsense, with the intelligent design folk just the latest in a long time of die hard reactionaries who really want to believe that god invented dinosaurs but failed to mention them in the Bible ... because, well because ... 

No, not because they didn't know about the bones, but because god moves in mysterious ways, beyond your puny mind.

To count the way conservatives and reactionaries have been wrong over the centuries - as their ideas have been undermined and human understanding transformed - would involve a general history, a catalogue of unseemly errors, worthy of and requiring a new Herodotus.

It's hard to think of any kind of social or cultural 'truth' that hasn't had some equal or opposite reaction, a bit like the Mormons, after setting up solid colony or two of polygamists, hastening to assure Californians that marriage really is just between a man and a woman (well heck a man and twenty women if you must, but never between a couple of men. As for Lesbos, I believe it's a Greek island and we know the Greeks only approved of men and boys).

It's also a bit like lefties who cling to philosophical or political philosophies that patently haven't worked in the past, and won't work in the future. All kinds of true believers get it wrong.

That's why as a general rule Michael Duffy, esteemed columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, is usually wrong about everything, and when he's right about something, it's only in a perverse way that ensures his general understanding of life and the world is as bizarro land is to Superman. Upside down, topsy turvy and kinda funny.

This week it's Duffy's turn to express conservative anxiety about the internet. In the last few weeks we've had Susan Greenfield expressing the view that "screen culture" is now such a devastating influence it's changing our brains and ruining the world, and before that Miranda Devine profoundly sure that the wretched googles of the intertubes was stealing our memory.

Now in Many voices in a net spread thin, the Duffster manages to dismiss the wonderful new world of the intertubes as just more of the 'same old, same old', at least in terms of democratization, and nothing to get fussed about at all.

In a world where newspaper sales are collapsing around his ears, this takes some doing, but as usual, the Duffster uses only one main source - esteemed Matthew Hindman, professor of political science at Arizona State University, and his book The Myth of Digital Democracy - and builds his paper-thin argument from there.

Hindman, and by extension the Duffster, finds no sign of democratization because most political blogs and sites have almost no readers, any sites that do have readers tend to be owned and run by old style offline political media, and those who engage on politics online are the same as those who engage with politics offline.

So it seems if you attend the left liberal Huffington Post, you're not engaged in democratization, or even political discussion, because it's just the same as the Washington Post. And if you do it online, that doesn't count because you do it offline too. I guess that if you breathe online you might also breathe offline, but what the heck.

I guess if you happen to be active on the web politically, you can only display it by attending an actual political web site, which by Hindman's definition means you're likely to be an old fart (since young people are off doing young people things).

But what if I attend a pirate site and download illegal material, because I have a 'fuck the authorities, fuck intellectual copyright' attitude? Is that being political? Maybe not, but industry changing all the same.

What if I take a hearty interest in pornography as a way of rebutting Stephen Conroy's nanny super censorship state, but never bother to go to an overtly political site to state my opposition, preferring time well spent at assorted free porn sites (since my intertubes ethos demands that the porn be free rather than a pay experience)?

No, no, says the Duffster. "... despite the exceptions, the internet has turned out to have a bias towards orthodoxy that few people predicted."

Well I think he means political orthodoxy, which will come as a relief to the Obama campaign, which used the intertubes for a very effective fund raising campaign, and as a 'get out the vote' device which had a significant impact on the result.

According to the Duffster, this is just more of the phenomenon 'winner takes all', whether it be television networks, political parties, takeaway hamburgers or the intertubes. And also Hindman's 'politics of search', which proposes that most search engines tend to direct traffic to already popular sites, and most people select the first links they are given when they do a search.

Well yes, but of course the mass of humanity has always congregated in the middle, and it's always been at the edges that interesting forces have gathered. The notion of communism was at the very fringe of society in its day, a small clan of frustrated activists, yet soon after it became a mainstream group of ratbags in charge of several large areas of the earth, before slowly returning to the fringes (if you happen to agree China is just a dictatorship).

The intertubes is only twenty years old, yet already it's the home of ratbags of all kinds of persuasion, communicating in ways - overtly and covertly political, but also tribal and social - that make old style political organizing, via pamphlets and gatherings of the faithful, seem quaintly cute, and soooh last century.

As usual, the Duffster and his cohorts can't see the leaves for the trees. Duffy goes with conventional thinking, because the Duffster is reassured by the conventional burger thoughts he's always known and loved.

Already in twenty years the intertubes has become a remarkable source of information, and a remarkable new way of social interaction. To study only overtly political websites, and claim that there's nothing much going on here, move along people, is a profoundly inept way to approach the possible political and social significance of the intertubes. I've always been political - many people are, one way or another - but I've never belonged to any overtly political organization.

The only rough equivalent I can think of to match the Duffster's logic is saying printing didn't have much to offer because the first thing Gutenberg printed was the Bible, a profoundly conservative voice for such a radical new device.

It's easy for mainstream media to blag the many unread blogs out there, but of course people blog for many reasons - for example, this one's done as therapy, and has nothing to do with e-democracy or politics or political campaigning. When confronted by the unerring silliness of mainstream media, how much better to let it all out in one hit rather than send off a comment to be moderated, eviscerated and ignored in a mainstream site? Readership? Comments from Tim Blair type loons to boost the ego? M'eh, send in the clowns, don't bother, they're already here.

But the times, they are a'changing, and the proof is the dilemma faced by conventional newspapers. Do they stop hard copy publishing, do they go totally online, how do they find a cash flow basis for continued existence, do they go down market online, like Fairfax, do they mortgage their building like the New York Times, and hope it all works out in the long run, do they try to work out a new business model that allows them to charge for columnists who provide not much in the way of insight, wit, science and art, or do they act like dinosaurs, and cluster around the remaining pools of water before fading into extinction?

You see there's more to 'political' than the simple-minded definition that 'political' is overt, conventional politics. The world changes in many different ways as technology changes, and things come along to interrupt, divert or re-focus our lives in ways we find hard to analyze or imagine as it's actually happening.

There's a fair argument that it took Gutenberg's device some five hundred years plus - of printing, and gradually circulating and slowly changing ideas, and motivating new notions like printed plays and novels - to introduce a level of education, and communication that resulted in the assorted bizarre political ideas of the twentieth century. 

I can imagine a monk of Duffy's stripe sitting down with his quill in a quiet monastery somewhere, and denouncing the new fangled printing format as unlikely to catch on, and in any case, unlikely to change the monarchical system under which the world ran best. Democratization? Piffle.

But it's a brave person who dismisses a new fangled revolutionary system as having an orthodoxy few predicted, and to conclude with a cheap joke about the internet being a place where the authors line up to see the reader. In that cheap joke lies a realm of fear, of future bankruptcy and of future unemployment for acolytes of old style mainstream media.

Political power will always come out of the barrel of a gun for some, but others will wonder at the ultimate effect of millions of voices contending. Conroy's one politician who's got the fear, and maybe he's right ... or maybe the grass roots intertubes will do him down. Ah grasshopper, I was once number one in the burger shop, but now there's someone wanting a sexy spicy tofu burger with rocket ...

So to this week's score:

Ability to cite as few references as will disturb the Duffster's thinking and arguments: 11
Ability to adopt a conventional conservative approach to a wildly new technology: 11
Ability to ignore the internet's impact on newspapers in twenty short years: 11
Ability to ignore Nanny Conroy's concern for pornography as a way of bringing down the world: 11
Ability to ignore Susan Greenfield's fear the intertubes will ruin the world, which surely must count as some kind of political impact: 11
Ability to ignore Miranda the Devine's realization the intertubes have stolen our memories: 11
Willingness to trash blogging while erecting a very narrow definition of democratization as a straw dog with which to trash the impact of the intertubes: 11
Drop off in readership of this site when ever discussing Michael Duffy's largely irrelevant ideas: 11
Actual ability to predict and analyze the immediate future of the intertubes on politics, society and social relationships: 2

What a pity that insight has to form part of the scoring, because otherwise the Duffster was heading towards a Greenfield type score, though in the direction of predicting the intertubes are actually a kind of valium for radical political discussion, as opposed to her conclusion that the www is actually an 'e' type brain warping acid mushroom speed monster that will change our brains forever.

Conservative voices. Such a muddle, and as a guide to the future ... well call me Zeus and let's all pray for rain.

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