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Blogs and the Networked Intellectual
Alex Steffen, 24 May 04

I'd been wrestling with some new ideas about US politics and how we can actually get more worldchanging ideas into the public debate, when I came across this story: Bloggers are getting press credentials to the American Democratic National Convention.

"Among the media credential applications for this summer's Democratic National Convention -- from the TV networks, newspapers, and radio stations -- is the one from 21-year-old Jesse Taylor.

"He may not be a traditional journalist, but the recent college graduate does have a blog, a website called, where his opinions on current events and the press draw 12,000 readers per day. And from the standpoint of Democratic National Convention organizers, that could be good enough. This summer, they'll grant some of their 15,000 coveted credentials to blogs...

"Bloggers themselves are a relatively youthful, growing niche. A national Pew survey conducted in February found that 5 percent of the 128 million American adults who use the Internet say they have created a blog. And 17 percent call themselves blog readers."

I think this is another small hint that something fundamental is going on here. I'm not talking about the revolution in how campaigns are run and activist movements created (which may or may not be happening to the extent some see -- too early to tell) but simply about how civic ideas are birthed and propagated. I'd like to rant about this for a while. Feel free to skip to the next post if this sort of thing bores you.

But anyways: How are new ideas conceived and delivered? Not long ago, the route was clear: Public Intellectuals (authors, academics and policy wonks whose work had been vetted through institutional accreditation and affiliation) would gradually rise through the ranks of influential policy publications and public arenas, building credibility and reputation, and eventually having the ability to influence large swathes of the public through their pronouncements.

But that model is as dead as the dress code at Big Blue.

Television killed it, and then the conservative talk machine drove a stake through its heart. TV has massively accelerated the news cycle, making deep discussion of complex issues with a general public impossible, while the billions of dollars poured by the Right into partisan media outlets, kept policy shops and strategic communications work has meant that it's impossible for mainstream (much less progressive) ideas to start from communal assumptions (that taxes are the dues we pay for civilization, say, or that extreme poverty in a wealthy country is ethically wrong).

The combined effect is that mainstream media discourse is stalled at the most simplistic and fundamental levels. There's no way to argue the benefits of next generation solar and distributed power systems when you have 45 seconds on the evening news and the other side gets half of that for their trained scientific chimp to argue that climate change probably isn't happening and industry can be trusted to do the right thing in every situation in any case... Training and funding traditional public intellectuals in this context either produces instant porridge instead of innovation (think Gore's Re-Inventing Government projects) or simply sends eggheads to the slaughter (I'm sure everyone reading this can think of at least one time where they saw a clearly smarter and more informed progressive get done to death by a rabid and better-soundbitten conservative).

Some think the answer is better spin. It's not. We certainly need to reframe the public debate in terms which block conservative assaults on basic concepts on fairness, equity and sustainability, and which prepare people to hear better ideas.

But we also need to recognize that the world has changed. The teetering Amway structure of Beltway media is swaying in the wind. Mainstays like the Sunday morning talkshows, the New Republic and Democratic establishment events are already somewhat irrelevant outside Washington, serving mostly to convince wanna-be insiders that their obsessions are of primary importance. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not governor of California because he blasted off a sterling set of talking points on the McLaughlin report.

Conservatives and their frames dominate infotainment news. We surely need to neutralize that advantage. But we also need to use our most powerful new tool: emerging digital networks of millions of supporters.

Now, I'm not at all sure that websites, listserves and online donations have completely transformed campaigns, but I am sure that blogs, discussion sites and networks of activists are completely transforming the way new ideas spread through our republic. Whether a candidate blogs well probably isn't yet a determining critieria for electability -- whether a new idea blogs well is absolutely critical.

Sometimes that impact manifests in terms of direct influence on the mainstream media -- think Trent Lott -- but the very aspects of the blogosphere which smirking critics like to dismiss (the fact that many blog readers watch far less TV news than average, the fact that blogs skew young, the word-of-mouth spread of information, the lack of vetting and credentialled sources) are indicative of its real impact: those in the public most interested in policy are most likely to encounter genuinely novel thinking there. Pundits decry the "echo chamber" effect (by which they sometimes mean "But no one's cited me on this blog!"), but it's in these networks that most of the real progress changing the the debate is being made.

But one thing's (largely) missing: the Networked Intellectual.

We need people who fill the roles once filled by the Public Intellectual, but who understand that the way to have actual impact on the way people think about vital matters of public interest is no longer the preparation of a well-defended dissertation or a devastatingly annotated white paper, but the delivery of substantial thought in bloggable packages.

We'll always need brilliantly-focused research. But that's never been the role of the Public Intellectual. The role of the Public Intellectual has always been largely to synthesize and redefine so that the best ideas rise to the top of the debate and the people's imagination is provoked with a sense of possibility. We still need that work done, but millions poured into the old products of think tanks and public-minded academic institutes will be millions wasted.

I think the blogosphere and its inhabitants are the best bet we have for not only spreading new ideas, but for generating and debating them in the first place. In terms of spreading ideas, I'd rather have another couple dozen sites like DailyKos in my corner than Air America or a columnist at the Washington Post, and in terms of generating new ideas I'd take a progressive Slashdot over another New America Foundation any day of the week.

How do we identify and support Networked Intellectuals? How do we create institutions which empower them? How do we fertilize the blogosphere? How do coordinate the idea-generation and -distribution powers of networked communication with the organizing possibilities of networked campaigns and movements? How do we increase the quality and accountability of new ideas while increasing the popular appeal of new forums?

We don't yet know. But if we're serious about changing the debate, and thus changing the country, we'd better start finding out.

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better software? :D

like i think the public/networked intelletual is one of those distinctions without a difference in the sense that why not both!? they complement one another afterall (the right hand disseminates the left :) and, i believe, increasingly it's looking like they're one and the same!

sure they're writers, profs and "public intellectuals" that i wish had blogs or a sustained web presence [like bernard lietaer & benedict anderson :] but the neat thing i think is they don't have to be! their stuff usually (but not always, i concede!) filters through the RL/VR membrane by osmosis by virtue of the "neat stuff" gradient, which ensures that what does get on is pretty neat, and to their credit, more often than not, it's about research and activities that they couldn't accomplish if they were keeping their weblogs updated and checking their email every 15 seconds :D

i mean like has been "e-publishing" scientific papers online for well nigh, well forever! (in internet-time :) and is trying to do that for well everyone's "e-materiel," ...

so like i think what you're getting at isn't networked intellectuals per se, but *networked intelligence* or as larry page sez, building an institution/blogosphere/etc to "understand everything" :D

or at least facilitate it!

Posted by: reflexorset on 24 May 04

update :D


Posted by: reflexorset on 24 May 04


kottke sez, "West coast bloggers write tech books, east coast bloggers write novels."

(via waxylinks :)

Posted by: reflexorset on 24 May 04

For me, the ideas to change the world, the new social inventions, should come from the people who experience the problems. So rather than the public intellectual rising up to a prominent think-tank or research institution, then influencing government, you have a "collective" intellectual, made up of the "ordinary" person's suggestions, ideas, imporvements....which can then be fed into the mainstream (at governmental / organisational level) or, in many cases, put into practice by the people themselves. See the Global Ideas Bank for more.....

Posted by: Nick Ideas on 25 May 04

I think that the slogan for the networked intellectual has to be "Do your homework." You are no longer just preaching to the converted. People who disagree with you are going to take a critical look at what you have to say.

I think that the reason that most legacy public intellectuals will not make the transition is that they are not used to having their views evaluated critically and carefully. They are used to the sound-bite mudball fights, which are different.

It's not a matter of coming up with the best one-liner or the nastiest retort. You may actually have to build up a logical argument, acknowledge the strengths of the other person's point of view, etc.

Posted by: Arnold Kling on 26 May 04



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