27 February 2002

Turn and face the strange changes….

Don’t want to be a richer man
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time….
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it

Dotting “i”s….

Okay, the smarter-than-me gang have thrown some exquisitely heavy-duty ideas out, and now I’ll play kickball with them for a few minutes. I’m speaking here of Mike, Tom, Steve, new-to-me acquaintance Jonathan Delacour (here and here) and probably several other people whom I’ll hyperidentify en route. I should appreciatively acknowledge that some of the energy behind this engine of inquiry and exposition derives from the kindness of John Dvorak, intellectual hero of all who know anything about PCs, blogging, critical thought, making oatmeal, rhetoric, brain surgery, and how to alleviate third world debt. John gently instigated a renewed round of metablogging, from which he stands to learn nothing, but which demonstrates his generosity to us who are less universally insightful, who will enjoy ourselves romping in the fields his vast mind has opened up for us. (My thanks to the Happy Tutor for reminding me of how very much we should be thankful to John.)

But back to the subject. The “i”s I want to dot (digression: has anyone figured out a good solution for punctuating the possessives of letters-used-as-letters? I’d look it up, but I’m already one digression away from my main theme and I can’t risk a double digression, lest I never finish this blog and get back to work) involve online personae, communities, why one blogs, and whether one ought to be critical of other bloggers.

First, we should enter the discussion with some sensitivity to the problem of criticism in the contemporary culture that many of us inhabit. “Criticism” as a phenomenon is not widely practiced, only slightly more widely understood, appreciated slightly more than that, and attempted less often than one would think. Instead of criticism, which requires some sort of analysis, engagement, evaluation, humility, and intellectual energy, we more typically encounter feel-good mutual support (on one hand) or flame wars (on the other). Both of these are vastly easier than the more demanding practice of criticism, so everyone can play. Both of these express regular human impulses (sticking up for one’s friends, or kicking one’s adversaries, about which I know since I’ve impulsively engaged in it recently). Neither of these advances anyone’s understanding of anything–they just reinforce boundaries and gratify impulses that may derive some of their irresistible power from hormonal secretions.

So if “criticism” in general is unusual in our real-world and hyperlinked lives, we ought not to expect it magically to grow up abundantly at any specific juncture of personae, especially not as profoundly underdetermined a juncture as, for instance, blogging.

We likewise ought not be surprised if people can’t recognize criticism if they see it. For someone who inhabits a world driven by the evil twin impulses of sycophancy and capricious misanthropy, any praise or blame will necessarily fall into the categories of servility or the automatic gainsaying of of any statement the other person makes. If I compliment Marek, it can only be because I am a bootlicker; if I call something David Weinberger says into question, it can only be because I (like all other Cluetrain skeptics) am a right guy and DW is an ass.

Now the matter of how to conduct criticism, especially deprecatory criticism, is not my strong suit. I know someone who will happily teach you.

I do care, though, about reasoning with regard to how communities communicate, how they write one another into existence, and what kind of community grows from what kinds of mutual production of selves. Here Mike Sanders’ use of the “neighborhood” metaphor, resonant with not only geographical but also ethical overtones, works particularly well. I don’t care to be part of a war on Dvorak. John irritated me when I first read the column, but reflection on just what he wrote helped relax me into a soberer frame of mind. I am very interested, however, in reflecting on the ways that we, projecting and composing our own identities while we shape, deflect, attract, fine-tune our friends and neighbors’ identities, form non-exclusive constellations of sympathies and interests. And here, by “non-exclusive,” we should observe that the constellations aren’t exclusive of new participants (practically every day I read at least one new blog, and practically every day one of the blogs I read daily cites a new acquaintance) and that they aren’t mutually exclusive (if I hang around with the ImPRoPritieS gang, that doesn’t prevent me from spending time at Tom Tomorrow’s place, or at Sacra Doctrina. And if blogrolls tend to overlap and reinforce one another, they also diverge markedly, giving us the opportunity to meet others whose interests strongly overlap with ours (I’m going to go meet Shelley Powers this afternoon, on the strength of Mike Sanders’ introduction), or diverge markedly (by picking an interesting-looking name out of a blogroll of unfamiliar sites at a blog one doesn’t usually frequent). Permalink -Main Page-
( 10:33 AM )

. . . and Connecting the Dots

Which leads me to a connection that Tom Matrullo may have made explicit somewhere, but which lurks in the interstices of a whole buncha stuff he and Dave Rogers have been posting lately. It occurs to me that there’s a connection between the once-upon-a time when we used to stand around the piano and sing (in four-part harmony) for ourselves, and the copyright blogthread, and the “why we blog” topos which I had hitherto successfully side-stepped, and the Dvorak brouhaha.

Bear with me on this: think of the transition from singing along with friends and relations, to the time when we think, “Why should I listen to myself sing? Why not just put Workers’ Playtime on and listen to Billy Bragg?” We gave up on the uneven pleasure of our own voices in favor of the predictable excellence (and otherwise) of recorded musicians. Likewise we have tended to write less and less, less and less well, in favor of letting the really good writers, the published writers, occupy center stage. (But recall the deeply moving letters sent home from past wars; how many comparable letters have been sent from Iraq and Afghanistan?) With blogging, we are learning to reclaim our own voices in a public arena; our PowerBooks are our instruments, and we’re sitting around some virtual parlor learning to make harmony (our drown one another out).

And this is profoundly unsettling to those who benefit from restricting public performance of writing (or singing) to the few authorized voices that Someone Else has decided to anoint as the Voices Who Count. If, for instance, we had no prior notion of selling recorded performances (as the principal means by which musicians earned their livings), we would see in a split second that by making recordings freely available on the Web, musicians could meet their audience and popularize the appearances for which they could ask to be paid. (See what John Perry Barlow observes about the Dead, viral marketing, and making money.) That would, of course, eliminate a lot of high-paying jobs in the music industry (although what the RIAA types don’t see is that it would create a whole new cadre of jobs in different sectors; capitalism is that labile).

Now, apply this line of thinking to print media. If one can read more interesting, more sophisticated, friendlier and more respectful prose for free around the virtual coffee table at David Weinberger’s, or Mike Golby’s, or Jeneane Sessum’s place, why would you shell out whatever it is these days ($6 or so?) to read an Authorize Voice pontificate?

So it’s understandable that shrill voices might be heard when some people, perhaps associated with the Cluetrain Manifesto, question the necessity of the sorts of interaction that put bread on the table for the intellectual rustbelt. And with Shelley and Tom and Dave and all, the rest of us can keeping writing one another into copyright-free harmony, and we can criticize one another, and encourage one another, and printa donna journalists can find criticism and encouragement at the level of insight that’s comfortable for them.

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