Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Staring in to the Abyss

Poor Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, was condemned never to be believed after having turned down the advances of Apollo. She foresaw the plight of Troy and her death in Agamemnon's bath but could never avert her country's (or her own) sad fate. Bloggers often share Cassandra's catastrophist tendencies, although it remains to be seen whether our own worst fears are wildly speculative fantasy or a grim reality which many of our contemporaries shirk from confronting.

What does this highly pessimistic mindset indicate? Is it a valuable voice of discontent that can stop things disintegrating before they are too late or the last cries of a dying civilization? I have heard some say that Blogging compares with the pamphleteers of the Seventeenth Century who supposedly turned the world upside down during England's brief republic. The comparison brings together the crumbling of barriers to publication that in times prior to 1639 were set up by strict blasphemy laws and an authoritarian Monarchy, and nowadays, by a press that have caved in to an oafish populism and subservience to a court whose information they depend on for advancement. Our press have found out they have backed a bunch of liars and middle managers whose only solution to our problems seem to be to rename things, yet they seemingly cannot summon any way to effectively criticise the magicians who so wowed them at first with their presentational skills. At the same time the public over the last 10 years has had a complicated lesson in the power of Newspeak and simultaneously a medium has arrived which allows us to express what we think to one another bypassing the contented and lack-lustre news-gathering middleman.

This is in some ways what I would like to think, but I also worry that the sheer scope of the internet and the failure to fully discuss issues can mean this new medium has several flaws. It is incredibly surprising, for instance, how quickly some on the internet launch in to attacks, not on the arguments of others, but their personal characters. This might just be a direct consequence of the enraged silenced masses who have had a new medium open up allowing them to say what they really think. Yet how will any of this change policy and how do we hold government to account as the minutiae of the latest acts and trends at Westminster are overlooked even as distrust spreads like a cancer? The detail and the professionalism of traditional news reporting is scrapped and instead disparate bits of information, are discussed all over the web with far greater interest then the irrelevances of celebrity gossip, yet often lacking the contemporaneity we would demand from a traditional news feature. This is great news for minority interests, but could it also mean that as the traditional news institutions crumble from the levelling effect (produced by millions tapping away at their computers, eschewing the tittle-tattle that even the serious press have now stooped to publishing) the net result will be worse, for the sea of information will carry on expanding and we will have no way of checking its veracity.

The problem with our attempt to take on the grand themes is that the Cassandra complex will arise. Looking at the world we will in general see many horrendous things. I have simply talked of the new changes I see afoot in the information age, and part of me surges with optimism yet other doubts envelop me. If we are all talking together and expressing similar doubts why is it that nothing seems to change? Could it be that the groups we form on the net, like in life, are largely self-selecting and that the grave doubts we so often express are not perceived by millions of our other fellow men? Is the net full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?


anticant said...

It takes time, Toby, it takes time. The Internet is whatever we - the users - choose to make it. The flaws you mention are indeed there, but it is up to us to spend our time online constructively. We must expand our range of contacts, and build up links, swimming outwards into the deeper cybersea beyond our own little familiar too-cosy ponds which so easily beome the haunt of idle babblers.

You will have seen how I have been attacked by self-styled friends for launching a new, more focussed, blogsite. But it's going very well in only its first week - not least thanks to you - and I intend to persevere.

I sometimes think you are a bit over-optimistic. Don't be pessimistic about the Internet!

Toby Lewis said...

"The Internet is whatever we - the users - choose to make it."

Like democracy then! One of the obvious advantages of the internet is that it allows small ponds to babble away (no offence meant, YD) but as a purely amateur concern it may well be that it becomes impossible to challenge big companies and corrupt politicians or on the other hand it might well be the perfect place for libelling people meaning that we don't trust the stories that are in circulation. This means, despite my disgust at the way some of our best papers have become tabloids, in spirit, as well as in format, the need for a mainstream media with high journalistic standards has become more apparent, at least to me!

As to your blog, I think it is a good experiment to have two sites. I wouldn't have the time to keep them both running. As to the censorship debate, I don't know if you witnessed the Diaspora from Comment is Free to here (, at least)? But it was provoked by consistent Guardian censorship of comments and their ill-considered 30 minute rule, especially as it was imposed from on high seemingly out of the blue. Now, I like your site and have had no comments censored , but Szwag and Zola, who hate even a whiff of censorship object (I don't think Szwag will ever comment on the Guardian website again, other than as a semantic terrorist).

My guess is they'll come round to the way you want to go about things, firstly because they like you and secondly because they may realise that your censorship is very light. Maybe if you lifted the comment restrictions as a peace offering they would be even happier and just ask everyone to be on their best behaviour on the new site (You can remove any comments you don't like with the current system any way).

anticant said...

Toby, I keep saying repeatedly that I have no intention of censoring any opinions, however outrageous or un-PC, that are relevant to the thread. My 'friendly critics' then say "Ah! but how do you define 'relevant'? That's censorship!" The sort of thing I have in mind is that if we are having a debate on the constitution of the European Union, I wouldn't want to post a comment about the price of fish in Grimsby.

Re moderating, I've looked at several other small blogs and quite a few of them do it without any apparent problems. I'm quite happy to post on their sites.

Toby Lewis said...

Fair enough, I think YD was right to say right from the beginning it's your site so you should have your rules.

I have little interest in fish prices in Grimsby, however EU membership probably has affected on its prices due to that fishing dispute in the 1990s. Also, as a side note I would like the standard of British fishmongers to be a lot higher.

anticant said...

Yes, I do agree. The best one we know is still where we used to live over 20 years ago, and although it's seven miles away we still go over there every few weeks to stock up on their lovely fresh lemon sole and superb smoked haddock.

By contrast, there's one in our local high street that's so smelly you have to hold your nose when passing it!.

zola said...

Thanks Toby for interesting stuff.
Concerning the internet and real political action you might reconsider some of your fears when checking out protest movements ( global ones where many examples from Canada to Sweden can be found influencing politics and even economics to some extent).
The internet here is certainly akin to some past radical movements ( in and out and rarely checked out because they are already off - which is why many officials hate the internet)
My point is that internet has been very political and successful. This even in the dirty business of DNA stakeholders(sic).
This "freedom" of the net is essential for radical and social movements if only because of the imbalance in power and ordering of things.

zola said...

Considering that you Toby and Anticant have moved from internet stuff to fish let me add : the campaign politics of Richard Rorty the US philosopher would see the internet networks in this frame even for complaints and change of "smelly local fishmongers".
Again few fears here and even a world famous philosopher to boot.

Jose said...

I have been able to make it here, Toby. Perhaps some glitch in the internet, I don't know. I'm sorry I can't post anything today because I'm under the weather. Feverish with flu. Tomorrow is another day.

Germinal said...
The French revolution is a better example of the 'power of the blog' if we are to say that the pamphleteers are in the same arena.
Not nice.
No 'Angels on pinheads', just enough conspiracy to make the populace think for themselves.
My King-to-Be wishes he were a tampax and you expect me to keep quiet about it?.

zola said...

Germinal : Yes and yes.
However there is a very big difference between past protests and gatherings and today with the internet.
In the past the physical presence was necessary and the officials could easily turn the big guns on the folk.

Today a postmodern tribe flits around here and there almost invisible and always on the run. Difficult to catch.
get in and quickly get out and even using a multiude of names.

It is, I think, a very different game today.

Toby Lewis said...

"No 'Angels on pinheads', just enough conspiracy to make the populace think for themselves."

I think it might be a bit unfair on Milton, Marvell, Bunyan, the Levellers, the Diggers and even the Ranters to claim they were solely talking about angels on pinheads. The revolutionary philosophical (if not political) ideas of Thomas Hobbes might be hurled in to the general zeitgeist for good measure.

As to the physical presence - that is obviously an important difference between now and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet though it will probably mean we will not end up with a bloggers' Robespierre (thank God) it may also lead to some very negative disinformation. Our thought will not be policed, but there will be so many individual cells thinking different things that any idea of co-ordinated action will be impossible. Maybe if we could return to a form of non-party parliamentary democracy to reflect this that would be a very good thing. Yet the current disarray and lack of order means we may sacrifice more than we gain from this new step in the information age.

Jose said...

"by a press that have caved in to an oafish populism and subservience to a court whose information they depend on for advancement."

My impression is that that press has not caved in but has promoted an oafish populism. One of the first duties of the press is educate.

"This might just be a direct consequence of the enraged silenced masses who have had a new medium open up allowing them to say what they really think."

Let's never forget that mock bravery also helps coward egos.

"Could it be that the groups we form on the net, like in life, are largely self-selecting and that the grave doubts we so often express are not perceived by millions of our other fellow men?"

My answer is that it couldn't be otherwise. Even in this medium we seek soul mates. It isn't just a prerogative of real life, we unconsciously seek it anywhere we are.

"Is the net full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?"

Shouts are a privilege of those who have nothing sensible to say. Fortunately in the internet we still have the option to choose, how long it will last is something nobody of us knows, although I guess changes are going to take place if we aren't wise enough to fend them off.

I must add here that I like your posts and encourage you to go on writing your "thoughts for food" as Richard says.

Toby Lewis said...

Surely some of the press have "caved in" to the populism that others promote? The fiendish techniques of the tabloids to hit the buttons of their average reader, reading age 9 and with a club has gradually been incorporated in to many of the more respectable publications. I must add that I think El Pais, for example, in the Spanish press, still knows how to prioritise news. Seldom do we see Beckham or Carmina gracing its front pages. Its international coverage is very broad, something in the UK you only really get from the Economist.

Toby Lewis said...

"although I guess changes are going to take place if we aren't wise enough to fend them off." Many changes will take place, partly because many users of the medium will be wanting to use it to establish their reputations as writers. This means people will be looking to make the internet pay and so a degree of professionalism will be necessary for many. A porous boundary will exist between amateur bloggers and those who have succesfully used it as a platform/showcase for their work. The odd thing is, will it be the bloggers who change, or traditional media? I imagine it will lead to both camps altering their styles slightly. The
Guardian experiment might be a case in point.

lavenderblue said...

It is possibly the ONLY way that people can express their views with any ' safety ', although I use that word with reservation.
I have every confidence that ALL our living, sleeping, dying moments are logged by everyone in every position of any authority imaginable - world wide..thank you Google, thank you Bill Gates, thank you America ( and god bless all who die because of you ).
However, however
the Turkish / Armenian Journalist
Hrant Dink was murdered.
For speaking out.In Print.
Think on't , Tobe.......
what IS the answer ?

Jose said...

The written press keeps being a powerful weapon, Lavenderblue, the more so in countries as Turkey which have not yet reached a full development in other communication systems as the Internet.

Will it also happen with the Internet that people will be sacrificed "because" of it?

Martyrs always happen.

zola said...

In short Jose : Yes it will happen even more than it already has.
Nothing much has changed in that sense.
This is not a "give up" position although it is a "take care" position.
But there are times, I think, when a person must stand up and be counted in old fashioned ways.

anticant said...

Yes, doubtless not merely every moment of our lives, but every belch and fart, is being monitored somewhere by someone - but so what? It all adds up to such a huge mass of mostly trivial information that even the most assiduous monitors will be swamped by it - even if they have the intelligence to know the wheat from the chaff, which I doubt. Look how cack-handed our security services appear to be.

If Global Big Brother is already here, don't let's get so self-important and near-paranoid that we have sleepless nights over it. They are after bigger fish, and even those slip through the net. WHERE IS BIN LADEN???

Toby Lewis said...

Sorry Lavender, I wasn't meaning to deny that the written word has great power. I was simply seized by a momentary scepticism about the web and the endless proliferation of print. News is very much infotainment these days, hence Big Brother (the tv programme) can cause an international incident. Will we, the bloggers, change this?

On a side note, much of current media law will be rendered useless by the internet. This is in many ways a good thing, it will mean the injunctions that the wealthy can use to stop embarrassing stories in the public interest emerging when they are often true and newsworthy will be rendered ineffective. Yet simultaneously, because it is so free, it also means the web is the perfect place for literal slander, lies and gossip. When we hear a scandalous story of malpractice in 20 years time how will we ascertain its truth?

I highly recommend a film by Atom Egoyan called Ararat about the Armenian genocide.

zola said...

I guess for that truth thing Toby you will need something more. For once i agree with Ice Berlin there.

I can only try to handle this real dilemma by demanding "truth" is well situated. Critique too.
I do mean "situational truth" here.

Toby Lewis said...

To be fair, as long as there is a market for quality news it will exist. I for instance, would trust most of the people who frequent this site and the other Awks to be honest, although obviously their sources might be
questionable. My basic point is that we need really high quality journalism, as well. I was heartened to hear that the Today programme still attracts 6 million listeners a day. That said, I've found since I've become an avid internet user I seldom buy a newspaper. This means state subsidy for the BBC is now more important than ever.

I find myself often agreeing with Berlin or at least enjoying his wonderful writing. I imagine it annoys you that as a historian of ideas he was very unfair about some of his subjects. Wasn't Nietzsche the same though?

There is a very good article on the folly and irrationality of nationalism in the international age in "The Crooked Timber of Humanity."

Jose said...

The racist issue in the Big Brother, in my opinion, was purposefully raised for the sake of the audience. The problem with racism in the communication media is that a silly comment if spiced can produce an international conflict and futhermore more racism.

Silly issues should be kept silly by those responsible.

zola said...

Thanks Toby . Indeed Berlin was sometimes a very nasty character and often as biased as biased can be.
But so much good stuff too, at least for me.
This is the atmosphere and OK.

Toby Lewis said...

Jose, I listened to A Week in Westminster about an hour ago and I found it rather amusing to listen to the poor Tory MP on the programme trying to explain the Big Brother row. Peter Oborne pointed out to him that a conservative attitude should be that the comment should be left to the law and politicians shouldn't be butting in willy nilly. You could imagine the squirming politician, who had perhaps not the faintest idea until today, who these people were or what they had said, thinking "thank God, a voice of sanity in the wilderness".

The poor politician then blundered on, referring to how this absurd row was a tribute to the British Creative industries. We might have all thought these media students were wasting their time with these useless degrees but look what they can do, they can create a storm in a tea-cup. Or words to that effect. If only Brown had said something like that. Why do politicians try to be in touch with popular culture when they fail so appallingly at managing affairs of state?

lavenderblue said...

Why do politicians try to be in touch with popular culture when they fail so appallingly at managing affairs of state?
Because, Tobe, they are only good at following..our 'Leaders' are no longer leaders, and only by this pathetic pretence of being up-to-date with 'the popular (?) culture of today - think Cameron and kiss-a-hoodie-week,and tv soaps and bloodybigbrother, can they hope to take our minds away from what they are really condemning us to.
Bliar is no longer the butt of jokes, he is purely the butt-plug of bush.
Shake a dice.....they are all crap

lavenderblue said...

that would be 'the' dice, then.

anticant said...

Toby, you don't NEED to buy a newspaper now - you can look at them all on-line. That's what I do.

And once upon a time there used to be reliably high-quality journalism in the "Guardian". That's why I so resent the "Comment is Free but censored" caper. Professional treason.

zola said...

Anticant : I agree.
Yet many small newspapers still manage to do well and that is good.

Toby Lewis said...

Lavender - There is definitely something in what you say. The Blair crowd have so often tried to follow and provide what they think "the public" want that they have failed to make any coherent policy or even please the people whose prejudices they pander to.