Friday, December 29, 2006

It's All About Us

Time magazine has declared "You" (ie. us) person of the year, which at first blush seems like a thinly disguised attempt to curry favor with their readership. But actually, the article points out all the ways in which individuals have come to the forefront in shaping the zeitgeist. From blogs to YouTube, to Wikipedia, the collective efforts of millions of individuals creates an unprecedented change:
It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Not surprisingly, there has already been some push-back. What is (somewhat) surprising, is that one source is Brian Williams. A blogger himself, he nonetheless asserts that democracy itself is threatened:
The problem is that there's a lot of information out there that citizens in an informed democracy need to know in our complicated world...
For the time being, let's leave alone the notion that MSNBC in general, or Brian Williams in particular, knows exactly what information we *need* to know. We can revisit that shortly. Let's go on to the main point of his essay which asks:

Does it endanger what passes for the national conversation if we're all talking at once? What if "talking" means typing on a laptop, but the audience is too distracted to pay attention? The whole notion of "media" is now much more democratic, but what will the effect be on democracy?

He answers this question by saying that the danger is that we might miss the next great book(?!), or the "next great idea, or that we fail to meet the next great challenge because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same song we already know by heart."

"Enough About You"

Sorry Brian, but there are some very mistaken assumptions you are making here. The most dangerous is that the news media is the singular authority for information an informed citizenry needs to have. In fact, as Steven Colbert brilliantly pointed out in his biting address to the Washington Press Corps: "we didn't want to know and you were good enough not to tell us". The media has been particularly AWOL on the stories we as a democracy *needed* to know: why we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and why we are still there.

More to the point of this Person of the Year award though, the problem with your assumption that it "endangers our national conversation if we are all talking at once" -- um, you really don't understand blogging, do you? This is not a broadcast. Perhaps the analogy of multicast will help. In a broadcast world there can only be one person being heard at a time; so we need to select a channel to avoid cacophony. In the multicast model, we can subscribe to multiple channels of interest and receive them simultaneously. Most importantly, it is not a one-way transmission, but an actual conversation. Note that this is not a symbolic "national conversation", but an actual one. In order to avoid a tower of babel, an informal meritocracy is employed. While not perfect, it is far more democratic than the old boys club that currently passes for a national conversation.

If the above sounds patronizing, it is not meant to be. I think we are all struggling with coming to terms with the Net as it currently stands, and how it will evolve when we get sufficient bandwidth in this country. As Doc says, "markets are conversations"; that can be readily extended to read: the Net is a conversation. It may be messy, but it's the reason why the audience has "made other plans".