Monday, April 10, 2006
Although I otherwise have great respect for Jurgen Habermas, these remarks strike me as utterly asinine:
Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.
That “the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media” may be true, or may come to be true, but, given the “achievements” of the traditional media, at least in the United States, this is not a difficult task. The “traditional media” has performed wretchedly indeed during and since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the blogosphere has proved to be useful simply as a forum in which such a thing can be said and reach an audience. Pointing out that the “traditional media” is seemingly full of ill-informed, smug, and opportunistic people is not in itself a startling or revolutionary act.
Heaven forbid that the “anonymous and dispersed public” be allowed to seek out “select topics and information”! Or that it might happen upon a “decentralized access to unedited stories.” What will we think of next? Undistorted communication?
Of course, that last sentence in the passage quoted above is really the heart of the matter. Self-appointed “intellectuals” might no longer be able to “create a focus.” (Habermas is a genuine intellectual, and I’m always happy to consider the “focus” he brings to all kinds of issues, but he could spare me the special pleading on behalf of intellectuals as a class.) Again perhaps it is my experience of the contributions of American intellectuals to so-called public discourse over the past few years that makes me laugh at the notion that we poor benighted readers will suffer from a lack of focus once the intellectuals have been deposed, or perhaps themselves repaired to the blogosphere. No doubt thinkers like Habermas have a higher public profile in the European press, while in the U.S. we have to settle for Richard Perle and Paul Berman. As far as I can tell, American intellectuals create a “focus” by toadying up to the politicians and speaking power to truth.
There seem to be two claims here.
1. The Internet weakens the ability of established media to focus public attention on important issues of the day.
2. This is bad because Internet information is unedited and intellectuals cannot wield the same force of public intellectualizing.
The first point is a factual claim that may or not be true. From my own observations, I don’t think so. The major media still call the shots, and even on the Internet the major media still are the primary source for news and information. The blogs act as a counterweight to the media by criticising their performance and picking up important stories that the media have neglected. But I haven’t seen any evidence that the major media have lost their traditional, agenda-setting role in public life.
The second point is a judgment based on two additional factual claims: (i) that information on the Internet is less edited than information from the major media; and (ii) intellectuals have less power to create “focus” as a result of the Internet. The first point strikes me as true with respect to the blogosphere, but I am not sure why that would be such a big problem. As for the second point, I have no idea why the Internet would weaken the intellectuals’ ability to create “focus.” Nor do I understand why this would necessarily be a bad thing.
Take a look at the asinine commenting that runs rampant on many news and issue blogs and you too will mourn the loss of a discourse organized and led by specialists and intellectuals.
I think Blah has a point when he says the traditional media seems to be calling the shots with the Bloggers tweaking away. Bingo is also right about the commentary on a “News Blog” for major News websites which are really depressing. However, I think by encouraging decentralization the increased competition will allow for some new voices and new ways to present information. However, while the “long tail” will create nice environment for small markets (fly fishing enthusiasts, model train lovers, New Age religions and so on) there could not be an outlet for Big News that is just as diverse and stretched without sacrificing quality, reliability, and accuracy. So at the thick end of the Long Tail, for the big news stories, a handful of sources with the strongest collection of writers will still dominate the public’s attention. I think that people will look toward the narrowcast sites for their niche interests (which have their own narrow quality control) but there will always be an appetite for broad news and reviews from papers (or sites) like The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist. However these major outlets have become more responsive because of the exponential increase in competition. They will also benefit from absorbing some of the innovations from the risk taking Indy sites. They now run the risk of being swiftly replaced, which can provide a reason to improve a product.
"In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.” I agree with Daniel that Habermas’ remarks here seem uncharacteristically obtuse. Uncharacteristic, because the problem is a procedural one, and surely Habermas has given some thought to proper procedures for running conversational communities, so forth. If by ‘intellectuals’ we mean, roughly, ‘really smart people with important things to say about what really matters,’ then of course everyone is in favor of intellectuals being able to create a focus. The question is: HOW to do it? HOW do you constitute a virtuous aristocracy of intellect? Saying ‘listen to the intellectuals’ is either just saying ‘do the right thing’, or ‘find the right result’ - which is no help - or else it is tendentious special-pleading on behalf of some alleged aristocratic class (academics, perhaps) who wish they had louder voices, compared to the internet. Obviously I should go read the original, which is linked. But it’s in German, and I have grading to do today and can hardly translate the whole thing. But I made a quick translation of the next paragraph, which doesn’t seem to make things better (and not just because my translation goes clunk):
“The proposition that the electronic revolution destroys the stage on which vain intellectuals strut, however, would be rash. Because with television, which essentially operates within the public sphere of established nation-states, the area that the stage covers - the press, magazines, literature - only increases. At the same time television transformed the stage. It must show in pictures, what it wants to say, and the iconic turn - the turn from word to image - accelerates. With this relative devaluation the balance shifts between two different functions of the public sphere.”
Here Habermas is anticipating the obvious response, but he isn’t saying anything that looks like it is going to address it. Skipping ahead a bit: “Because the good reputation of an intellectual, if he has one, is not based primarily on prominence or being well-known, but on a reputation which he has in his own guild, as a writer or as a physicist, anyhow acquired previously in some field, before he makes a public use of his knowledge and reputation. If he enters with arguments into a debate, it must be directed at a public, which does not consist of spectators, but of potential speakers and addressees, who are in a position to ask one another questions and give answers. The paradigmatic ideal consists in the exchange of reasons, not around the produced bundling of views.” Well, that’s not crazy. It’s true that the internet allows non-experts to make nuisances of themselves by mouthing off. But it hardly seems right to hint that the problem with the internet, as opposed to previous forms, is that it allows you to make posts but it doesn’t have comment boxes for people to discuss. That’s hardly accurate.
Feel free to correct my German, anyone. And point out where - if anywhere - the original piece addresses these rather obvious objections to the thesis. It really just seems to amount to grumbling that internet conversations are far from perfect. (Stop the presses!)
It occurs to me that Habermas is emphasizing not that there aren’t comment boxes but that the conversational setting should exclude incompetent participants. Not just: you shouldn’t have jokers at the podium; also: you shouldn’t have jokers raising their hands in the q&a. Well, everyone can agree with that. But how to you engineer that, short of hermetically sealing off your community of intellectuals from the ignorant rabble, which is a solution with systematic problems of its own. As Habermas is surely aware. Again, it just seems to be a rather heavy-handed way of saying that internet conversations are imperfect. (I think Jim Henley says it better in a blog post).
Perhaps Habermas has been reading some of the comment threads at places like, say, the new Guardian comment blog. (I read one yesterday that included an exchange: Fuck off! No, you fuck off!) If that were my main experience of the conversational communities of blogs, I’d be mightily unimpressed too.