Conservative commentator and blogger Hugh Hewitt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Hewitt) has coined the phrase “Information Reformation” to describe the effects of the Information Age on the public communications process. The point, as I understand it (can’t seem to find his book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation that’s Changing Your World), is that, just as the Protestant Reformation cut the Catholic hierarchy out of the individual worshipper’s relationship with God, the Internet allows for people with information to disseminate to get it directly to their target audience, bypassing official and quasi-official gatekeepers such as news media organizations. Hewitt seems to think that in political terms this will redound mostly to the benefit of conservatives (the media companies having a liberal bias).
Is Hewitt right, about the “Information Reformation” existing? Is he right about its effects? Does the Internet work better to disseminate conservative ideas, liberal ideas, or something else? And, will the blog ever make newspapers and TV news shows marginal?
I think he may have something wrt the process, but not on who benefits. The key point about the Internet as it is now structured is that you need to be able to read and write, and you have to WANT to do these things, to benefit. I think the brand of conservative that has helped the Pubbies get something close enough to an electoral majority that they can pull of electoral frauds (or as they like to call it, “win elections”) are people who mostly get their news through broadcast media. And so just as talk radio and Fox News have had a disproportionately huge benefit for Pubbies and conservatives, the Internet will have a hugely disproportionate benefit for liberal and Dems. Just look at who the new big funding source for Dems is: Moveon.org. Not a coincidence, I think.
It seems indisputable that this is happening, that traditional intermediaries and gatekeepers are being bypassed and sometimes eliminated. Anyone with information or a point of view can expose it to the world, and anyone with the equipment, connection and motivation can find it. This appears to me to be an equal benefit to anyone seeking to disseminate or find information, regardless of political persuasion. It is an advantage to anyone whose views or information are outside of the mainstream or inconvenient to those in political power.
I’ve actually been thinking about this since 1995 or so, about the possibility of the Internet sparking another “Reformation” - economic, political, whatever, but definitely a re-working of an age-old issue. It is no coincidence that the Reformation occurred after the printing press became unstoppable, and the Internet is easily the most important shift in communications since Gutenbergs day.
Hewitt seems to give this sort of power specifically to the “blogosphere”, but as to why he separates it from the rest of the internet (perhaps I totally misunderstand the term? perhaps he has a vested interest in blogs that he doesn’t have in, say, chat software?), I have no idea.
Anyway, I don’t think one could predict its effects, but I’m pretty sure the predictions of the outcome will fall in line with ones own political and moral viewpoints. As Mr. Hewitt so amply demonstrates.
But since we’re taking guesses as to what this upcoming Reformation would be like, if it happens of course, here’s my shot…
It will begin by 2040, though with the differences in the speed of technical assimilation between Luther’s world and ours it could begin as soon as this year - I’m sure there’s a “critical mass” of internet users, already far more than the percentage of literate people in 1517 Europe.
It will have at it’s heart power, money, and belief. And it’s that last that makes the prediction so difficult, for the Reformation wasn’t just a revolution, it was a drastic revision in the minds of men, eventually allowing hundreds of millions to throw off religious dogma altogether (Luther is definitely the poster child of the Law of Unintended Consequences), removing church and religion from its primacy in Western society to just another institution, a place where some people go and the others don’t, but not one with the physical authority to impact a persons lives, not as it did in 1516.
(This Reformation doesn’t even have to be Western - let’s not forget that. I’m assuming it is because, well, I’m a Westerner and that’s how I’m conditioned. )
Assuming it follows the historical pattern, I think… perhaps an “Economic” Reformation, one concerned with the way we handle corporations and, possibly, resource and wealth distribution.
However, that’s just what the issue is going to be - it doesn’t necessarily have to result in a “fairer” society or even one we would immediately recognize. As Luther would be dismayed to find he helped create a secular world in which religion is increasingly irrelevant*, a “Leftist” Luther in our Reformation could be dismayed to find a world in which people’s largest group association and identity comes not from their nationality but from whom their employer is. Born into a family of Toyota employees? You’ll be a Toyotan too, all pay and benefits, rights, and living arrangements secured by the wealth and power of the Toyota Corporation. The prevailing political belief of the day is the separation of state and economics, a belief held as undeniably true to the functioning of a steady society as we hold the separation of church and state.
Or we could all work in hippie communes, allowing no economic entity to have more than 100 people working for it.
Of course one can argue with the basic premise that media has a liberal bias but that is besides the point. The basic premise is stunningly obviously true:
Improved information technologies change societies in many ways, including politically.
The Protestant Reformation itself was only possible because of the use of the new information technology of the printing press.
Use of movies and media allowed Hitler to consolidate power through a highly effective propaganda machine, and then West attempted to respond in kind.
And the internet is changing the world as well.
To oversimplify that change as it appears that Hewitt has, however, is unwise. Of course it allows for faster grass-roots campaigning. That can be used by American conservatives and liberals alike. See, for example, how far Dean came so fast, in the last election (until his lack of appreciation of how his “Ewyahhhhh!” would play on Big Media did him in). But the bigger effects are in countries that have less of a free press than America, and there both for the good and bad: the internet allows disinformation to get out just as well as it allows information to get out. Just as it has allowed for information to spread within former totalitarian regiemes, it has allowed for false stories to be propagated by terror organizations and for communication by them to each other and to the rest of the world.
The internet is like other information sources only moreso. If you want to read things that reinforce your preconceptions and insulate yourself from other perspectives, then you can do it better with the internet. If you want to read widely and critically you can with the internet. If you want to believe in conspiricy theories about X or Y then you can find evidence for it on the internet like no other way in the past.
Sam Stone has often lamented, in this forum, that the microsegmentation of the mass media erodes our common discourse and (intellectual) sense of community. It used to be we all got our news from a small number of “mainstream” TV shows and newspapers; and all content went past “gatekeepers,” professional journalists and editors, who might or might not have a bias, but who at any rate staked their professional reputations on getting the basic facts right. Liberals and conservatives might disagree on how to interpret the information, but at least we all started from the same point. Now, everybody watches what reinforces their own world-view – conservatives get most of their news from Fox, etc. – and when we get together to discuss policy it’s like we don’t even speak the same language any more. I agree that’s a problem, and I wonder if the full flowering of the Internet – which can function without gatekeepers – will only make that problem worse.
I think it may make the problem worse. Empowering individuals is great, and allowing giant ad-hoc networks of individuals is also great, but I wonder if it won’t lead to a form of high-tech tribalism. Back in the old days, we were kind of all shoved together, information-wise, due to the necessity of the limits of technology. Sure, you could still subscribe to political journals that espoused your own viewpoint, but for news and analysis, most of us sat around the equivalent of a big central square and listened to our leaders speak. It ensured that, while our interpretation of events might different, the basic facts remained the same for all.
Now, it would be rash to say that we’re definitely heading for some kind of tribalist existence where we separate out into groups and throw figurative rocks at each other over the internet, but clearly we are still in a stage where the internet is reshaping society on a vast scale. Where it will land is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it will make society better. Perhaps it will make information more accurate, as opposing viewpoints are heard more clearly. On the other hand, it could also mean that small extremist groups gain more power and the ‘mainstream’ vanishes.
I think the end result of all this is impossible to predict. It’s just way too chaotic and there are too many forces at play.
I think in some senses it will lead to a lot of stalemate and frustration. Say what you want about the mainstream media: having a central authoritative guide to events at least allowed some things to have a modicum of resolution and a feeling of there being a true reality. Watch any internet debate, and you end up with mostly poorly informed parrots of bits of information being flung at each other, with little progress or or agreement ever being made. Hewitt, of course, is a great example of how this sort of dullard hackery is supplanting journalism. Regardless of the faults and biases of journalism, I have a hard time seeing how this is something to celebrate in our public discourse. I have a feeling that a lot more is going to have to develop on top of what seems to be a collapse of debates into chaotic tribal noise.
What sorts of new alliances this will forge: we’ll see.
You know, I’m not sure this is true. One of the greatest thing about the internet is that I think it has really ‘flattened’ the culture, in the sense that there are no longer powerful figurees controlling information flow. The internet has broken down barriers of age, race, and money. There are particpants in Great Debates who are in their seventies, and some in their teens. There are people who are black, white, and all other shades. There people from countries all over the world. And you can’t tell them apart.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. The effect of all this is to remove the prestige of rank and social standing. I think the problem the mainstream media is having right now is that they’ve been exposed as just people like everyone else. There was a time when if Walter Cronkite said it, everyone listened, because he was the voice of authority. That period is gone. And when you strip away that barrier, you find the same people with grudges, biases, and mistakes. Journalism has really taken a hard hit over this, I think. Bloggers on the right and left have broken stories, discovered major errors in the media, and often done a better job of analyzing events than has the mainstream media.
But this also means there is no ‘consensus’ view any more. How will history be written when people of the day couldn’t even agree on what was happening? It used to be said that the history books were written by the winners, especially the history of war. What happens when the losers can get on the internet and have their viewpoint heard en masse? What would the culture of WWII have looked like if people in the U.S. were chatting on message boards with or reading the blogs of people in Dresden who were being firebombed?
While most of the fact of what you relate are true, I don’t think the interpretation is right. Sure, the internet and the challenges it poses for old-school journalism has increased the amount of information out there. But it’s also rapidly advanced the pomo idea of there being no centrality or need to find a common meaning or authoritative take, which ain’t so great for our society and I doubt is something that will prove to be very stable (though what comes next won’t be a rehash of the old). Rank and social standing are things that humans naturally build and gravitate towards, and I think they’ll eventually be reproduced in the internet age in their own way.
As much as journalists are people with biases and grudges and such, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that what journalists at least aspire to is perfectly substituted for by ever more interest-group tailored bloggers. It’s like the solution to some bad journalism here and there is to hope that a million new self-published editorial pages replace reporting entirely. I just can’t take seriously the idea that some solid report by the Times is adequately replaced by a shreechfest of Michelle Malkin, Hewitt, Atrios, and Michael Moore.
And I’m certainly not sure the internet has a great track record of taking debates and through making them more open to all, improving them any. Look at the evolution/creationism debate for instance. Here is a subject on which I would hope you and I can agree there is some objective reality here: by and large, the mainstream biology view is on the money as good science goes, and most creationist complaints are just nutty and falacious. Most of the creationist stuff isn’t very helpful as skepticism or criticism (which is what would ordinarily keep science strong and honest) because it’s in such bad faith and based on such outlandish misunderstandings of what the discipline is even about.
The internet took that controversy, made it more accessible, and in the end just made it more frustrating and annoying. With vast amounts of material to work with and countless yammering blogs, a million causal creationists can now instantly show up with outlandish arguments that take hours to track down… all to find that they are based on some obscure misquote or a complete misunderstanding of an equation or what have you. And despite all the effort to do just that, the phenomenon has no sign of abating.
While I certainly can’t blame the internet for the phenomenon of creationism itself, it is a good example of how it’s a medium that values “truthiness” over any overriding ethic or duty to figure out the truth. And if truthiness becomes the new overriding civic ethic, then I’m just not too impressed with new school journalism over the old.
I think that’s the same point I was making, when I said that the internet could create a new form of high-tech tribalism, where we all have our own set of ‘facts’, and our own biased sources that feed them to us. The value of ‘authority’ in news is that it gives us all a common starting point for interpretation. We may differ on how we interpret the facts, but at least we’re all starting from the same information.
But now I’m not even sure that’s true any more. Looking at the debates on this forum, it seems to be increasingly the case that we can’t even agree on what the basic facts are, because we’re getting our starting point information from different sources.
I agree. We’re at the stage in the development of the internet where there is an abundance of information and opinion. What we lack is a ‘filter’ and a rank heirarchy that allows us to find information that we trust. But that’s starting to happen. Sites like InstaPundit and Daily Kos are acting as information filters. But that does nothing to solve the balkanization problem - what if my authorities and your authorities are now totally different?
I wasn’t thinking of the pundit and blowhard class when I talk about internet journalism. Rather, I’m talking about people like Michael Yon, a blogger who raised funds and went to Iraq to do his own reporting (and who’s work has been picked up by the mainstream media), or bloggers who are on the scenes of actual events.
Who’s information do you think would be more accurate: A mainstream reporter flown into a country doing reporting from the Hilton, or the reports of a hundred individuals living in the area in question, armed with camcorders and blogs? Look at Iraq: The mainstream media reports are often filed by reporters who live in the ‘green zone’ and rarely travel out of it. But Bloggers like ‘Iraq the Model’ are actual Iraqis living in the country and reporting on it. The information that guy is posting is far more in-depth and insightful than anything I’ve read in the mainstream media. And it should be, since he’s spent his life in that environment and has gobs of context an American reporter is just never going to have.
Of course, the danger here is that someone like ‘IraqTheModel’ might have his own agenda and be twisting the facts to fit his own worldview. But then, we have all kinds of evidence that the Mainstream Media does the same thing. They just pretend it’s objective.
Yeah, we agree completely on the validity of creationism, but is it really the case that the internet is advancing the creationist argument? I’m not seeing it. In fact, it’s damned hard to find a creationist blog of any size.
So it’s work to shoot them down, but that work is being done, isn’t it? How many honest-to-god creationists have you run into on the SDMB? Or anywhere else on the internet? And of those you’ve seen, how many have been able to convert other people? Do you think it’s more than the number of people who held vaguely creationist beliefs and learned better on the internet? If anything, I think the internet is great for shining a light on the various wrong beliefs that are held by a wide swath of the public.
However, the balkanization argument raises its head again. One of the reasons I kept pleading for civil debate on the SDMB over the last couple of years was because I saw this place as one of the few large communities where liberals and conservatives could debate each other and listen to each other’s ideas. Sadly, I don’t think that’s as true now as it was. But the only way to correct bad ideas is to be able to communicate with the people who hold them. So if all the creationists decide to hang out on creationist boards and the liberals and conservatives retreat to their own message boards, it’ll be a bad thing.
And I just don’t see that, other than in the biased echo chambers like FreeRepublic or Democratic Underground.