Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
|Reviews||Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media
London: Routledge, 2007
Extraordinary technological innovations that give rise to civilizational transformations have seldom been noticed, much less acknowledged as revolutionary, in their own time. What’s more, world-shattering changes rarely did their shattering overnight. The full implications of primitive metallurgy, for example, took time to be appreciated, but retrospectively gave their names major epochs such as the “bronze” and “iron” ages. Whoever invented the wheel, first domesticated animals or created the earliest examples of cuneiform writing surely had no idea that their clever novelties would irreversibly change the world, or that economic production and distribution, political decision making, religious practice and kinship patterns would never be the same once their full impact was felt. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor were its numerals. Even the printing press with moveable type, so brilliantly explained in Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy in the last century, saw six decades pass between the first printing of Papal indulgences and Martin Luther’s protest against them in the nailing of his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Yet the importance of the press for the success of Protestantism is now widely recognized. Modernity, of course, hastened the pace and our awareness of change.
The shift from land-based agriculture to long-distance trade, the shift from mercantilism to mechanized manufacturing, and the shift from fabrication and assembly to postindustrialism (the service sector, the knowledge economy, the information societycall it what you will) and all the incremental, intermediary and intervening steps between them have been initiated and accomplish faster, and our perception of them has been clearer as the speed, quantity and character of change has increased. The time that elapsed between James Watt’s observation of a bouncing lid on a tea kettle and the widespread use of steam looms of the sort that begat the Industrial Revolution and, of course, prompted the rebuttal of the Luddites was less than half a century; but, even so, most people in nineteenth-century Europe did not quickly recognize the full effect of industrialism until it was well under way, which is to say until it was too late. Although William Blake cried out early against the “dark, satanic mills,” the full consequences of the replacement of human labour with machinery would not be understood for almost a century after the factory system of production was put in place. No more!
Not only are we aware of massive technological and social transformations, but we also expect and generally applaud them; and, in no domain are these changes more obvious and profound than in information technology (IT). As an example of what has occurred in one man’s yet unfinished lifetime, I can recall that, as a child, I was taught to write with a metal-nibbed pen regularly dipped in an ink well, learned Morse Code as an allegedly vital skill, and was both astonished and delighted by the invention of the portable transistor radio. In the winter of 1967-1968, I programmed my first computer using a keyboard and innumerable “IBM” cards to tell a massive mainframe what to do in order to compute a simple bivariate table. The machine was enormous, expensive, attended by stern-looking men in white lab coats with clipboards and kept within tightly monitored temperature and humidity limits.
The notion that such machines would soon be transformed and easily accepted as just another necessary appliance in any middle-class home, much less be a subject of controversy directly related to matters of politics, citizenship and social change would have struck the casual observer as a bizarre fantasy. Today, well over half the homes in North America boast personal computers and as much as 90% of the teenaged population has access to the technology through home, school, library or other suppliers. And, as we all know, the machine I am using to compose this review is a fraction the size and a fraction the cost, but almost infinitely more “powerful” than its recent ancestors.
A scant four decades ago, colour television was still somewhat exotic, and electric typewriters were just emerging. Since then, I have become familiar with e-mail and e-journals like this one, think nothing of instant global communication and barely remember what it was to send a telegram. While I am both a self-conscious and a self-confident dinosaur in some respects (I refuse to “text” and to “tweet,” and I am repulsed by PowerPoint), I confess to finding a goodly portion of the new media more efficient than hand-written letters and three-cent stamps. I communicate with friends in Europe, across Canada and in a dozen states in the USA.
Discomforting, however, are the exaggerated and sometimes counter-intuitive claims made by technophiles about the astonishing potential of IT to enhance citizenship. I am sceptical about the insistence that electronic communication toys, which are increasingly obsolete before they leave the tech-store shelves, will somehow usher in a new era of domestic and possibly global democracy ought to give us pause.
No one can deny, of course, that computerized conversations have political effects. Clever politicians are able to raise amazing amounts of money through Internet appeals. Ironically, what began as a military means for the exchange of technical information has become a prime communications tool for dissenters who wish to organize protest marches against various genocides, decelerate environmental degradation and publicize the shredding of US Bill of Rights.
As well, the “blogosphere” is filled with comments (and commentaries on comments) from both the centre and the margins of political debate. Purely for curiosity’s sake, I counted the number of “posts” that, over the past few years, I have launched into the ether in response to stories and editorials in everything from AlterNet.com to The Village Voice, and from blondsense.com to The Washington Post on-line. It seems that I have been cranking out about three per weekmini-essays for anywhere up to 1000 wordsdestined to float about in cyberoblivion until the end of what passes for time. Hundreds of thousands of people do something similarmany more frequently than me. Despite the likelihood that few will read such material, and fewer will (or can) do much about the issues they address, we continue to editorialize to a “virtual” audience, which sometimes echoes back.
Has this habit significantly raised the level of political discourse or changed anyone’s mind about questions of public importance? Probably not. Nevertheless, it is from such sources that young people now acquire what limited information they have about the world around them. So, despite the fact that the vast majority of downloads are from pornographic sites, possibly illegal sources of recorded music and vendors of coffee mugs, used books, T-shirts and packaged vacations, the impact of IT on the polity must not be ignored. Mark Tremayne’s anthology, Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media, has taken useful steps toward broadening and deepening the necessary debate.
Tremayne’s book begins with empirical research reports that focus on a specific time frame (2003-2004) and seek to answer some basic journalistic questions about the peripheral journalism of the blogs. Who writes them? Who reads them? Why? With what effect? The personal and the political are brought into clear perspective as we see issues such as the American attack on Iraq, the hoax of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and the rhetorical “war on terror” become the fulcrum of anger and anxiety regarding both government’s and the corporate media’s complicity in legitimizing them. Personal outrage is not the best basis for thoughtful criticism. Loose and often flatly obscene language does not permit the most reflective consideration of complex matters. The blogosphere, however, does two things that the corporate media do not: they endlessly and openly invite all citizens with something that they wish to say to say it to a potentially vast audience; and, they sometimes get it rightor at least better than many venerable print and broadcast journalists, op-ed pundits and public affairs program producers. The cumulative results are seldom put forward as “fair and balanced,” or “objective” reporting and editorialized, but that is precisely the point. The bias of the blogs is seldom concealed, and much of the blogtalk is directed toward disclosing what the major media have taken pains to conceal.
There is much said in and out of the blogosphere about the bias of the media in the blogosphere. Conservative bloggers mimic Fox News and especially US talk radio. Bile and vitriol pour forth against the alleged “liberal” conspiracy to ban The Holy Bible, mongrelize America through interracial coupling, compel abortion, surrender Christian culture to various coalitions of gays, socialists and anti-gun activists and sell out the troops while advocating prisoners rights and ignoring the victims of domestic crime. Likewise, the leftists excoriate the likes of Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and what they sometimes described as the “Cheney-Bush junta.”
Blogging’s introductory empirical studies (largely content analysis of one sort or another) are meant to describe the phenomenon in a sort of snap-shot approach that explores the dual elements of this apparently most democratic of media formulations. It not only inquires into the credibility (or, perhaps, the perceived credibility) of the new media, but also mixes their journalistic implications with their apparent function as what is called “narrative therapy.” The result is a psycho-sociology of blog use which, while sometimes jargon-laden, provides many useful insights.
While credited with relentlessly acting as a watch dog over the media and the politicians who provide the media machinery with fodder for its performances, the blogs also offer otherwise alienated and anomic citizens with an opportunity to “vent,” without ever turning political criticism into actionable politics. So, Kaye’s chapter on the motivations and gratifications of bloggers offers some psychological insight into those who let others in on their virtual diaries and their personal views about any number of ethical, moral, social and political topics. Also interesting is Eveland and Dylko’s study revealing how little correlation there is between blog attentiveness and political activism, and Kaid and Postelniku’s examination of indices of credibility which, perhaps distressingly, suggests that the audience of bloggers are not especially worried about whether their favourite blogs are reliable sources of information, ideas and opinion; the problem is not so much that they accept the reliability of all bloggersirrespective of their credentialsbut that they seem to regard all opinions as of equal worth, which is to say that they have a distinctively postmodern attitude toward the truth; namely, either that it doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter.
The book concludes with some especially engaging discussions of the future of blogging. Not long ago, utopian fantasists imagined a computer and Internet-centred world. People such as Alvin Toffler and Newt Gingrich waxed phantasmagorical on the end of the book, the end of the newspaper and an intrepid new world in which the printed page would be “deleted,” textbooks would disappear from classrooms, libraries would be replaced by work stations and a new way of communicating akin to the transformations that accompanied the creation of the alphabet and the technology of mass publication. A totally transformative communications revolution may and, indeed, almost certainly will occur in the future; but, what we are witnessing today surely isn’t it. Tremayne’s contributors do a good job of debunking some of the more outlandish predications that have been made in recent years. At the same time, they are alert to more modest modifications of the media that are plainly upon us.
Hyperdemocracy in the form of daily plebiscites on matters of war and peace, wealth and poverty, energy policy, urban planning, education and health care is not (yet) in the works. In fact, some worry that hyper-authoritarianism might be a more likely prospect. Tremayne’s book does not indulge in such ungrounded speculation. Instead, it offers compelling commentary on technology and society as it is lived in the present. The issues it raises are provocative enough.
Among the most intriguing matters concern the law. IT has raised numerous contentious issues from intellectual property rights, most obviously with the free downloading of music. It has also posed perplexing problems in domains such as legal liability for libelous and defamatory statements made and maintained on the worldwide web. The intricacies of international jurisdiction are explained in an accessible manner and their importance is well explained. Underlying these themes is the enduring question of how, and to what extent, concepts of press freedom apply to cyberspace.
Finally, the political economy of blogging puts electronic citizenship at the centre of the discussion. In the traditional media, the principle of a free press guarantees certain liberties to those who are wealthy enough to own a newspaper and to pay its enormous costs of production and distributionespecially in its “hard-copy” format. Blogging, by contrast, is almost free of charge. Already, there are cries and whispers from press barons and newspaper readers alike, as much admired broadsheets close and major cities are left only one major press outlet. This is not, however, where the most promising opportunities for blogging are seen to take place. Dramatic changes in journalism may have their largest impact at the local level of “micro-news.” Local television news is in trouble in many markets. Local newspapers that publish only once or twice a week are also experiencing difficulties as the lure of advertising becomes less and less attractive in recessionary times.
The ideal of the informed and active citizen comes down to us from the Athenian ideal and, although Athens is often called the cradle of democracy, it is well to recall that it was, after all, just a city with a population of about 100,000 (most of whom were women and slaves and therefore denied the right to vote) and therefore was smaller than many medium-sized towns today.
So, it is not completely surprising that Tremayne looks to "hyperlocal" electronic journalism as a place where most of the reporting and commentary will come from the audience, and those reports and commentaries will have the greatest noticeable effect on real politics. Far more that an exponentially enlarged “letters to the editor” page, local blogs will allow citizen activists, community and ratepayers organizations, environmentalist and others an authentic voice. Many small-town newspapers prefer fluff and boosterism to intense critiques and innovative ideas of interest to local residents. They choose to ignore criticism of local authorities and of their own journalistic traditions. Blogs therefore open the field for “citizen journalists” in their own polities. Issue-centred blogs and general news organizations will persist on national and international scales. Operations such as Truthout.org and CounterPunch.org will provide an alternative to the corporate media that will not break down powerful media cartels, but will at least provide an opportunity to keep them in check. Their direct effects, however, may be proportionately less than the potential communication strategies in direct local democracies.
I began by considering massive technological turning points in the history of communication, and suggesting that the effusive reactions to the fast-paced changes in electronic gadgetry are excessive. Blogging (and even texting and twittering, I suppose) is an important modification of communication, but it does not rise to the level of civilization-altering innovation. Lowering their “sites” (so to speak), the contributors and Mark Tremayne himself show that there is plenty of room to gauge and assess what the IT “revolution” really means, without the hype. Tremayne’s collection is therefore a worthy contribution to the IT discourse.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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