Friday, January 28, 2011

The Audacity of Shlock

When a congresswoman is shot in the head in the very act of democracy, we should all pause.

Poseur alert! -- this pronouncement must be the choicest pseudo-profundity to emerge from the shooting in Tucson of Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others. For many, Andrew Sullivan is The Blogfather. If the "MSM" -- how pompous is that invidious classification -- is superseded, it won't be for reasons of quality.

Reading a book like Daniel Boorstin's The Image (1961) will tell you more about blogs and Internet media than the whole middlebrow masturbatory mandala spun by Sullivan, Clay Shirky and TED. The more information there is, the greater becomes the need to digest it. Perhaps it began with law. First the Roman ("Digests" of the Corpus Juris Civilis, 529), then later the English (1700-1900) and American (1823), codes were summarized for interested specialists. Literature followed suit in the 19th Century. Cheapening the production of printed matter brought great works to a wider and less rarefied audience, which led to bowdlerization and abridgment. Then came mass-produced encyclopedias, journals and magazines. Review of Reviews and The Literary Digest (1890) arose to suggest interesting articles so people could find their way to what they cared about. As with literature the enterprise of being informed became more middlebrow. Reader's Digest (1922) condensed primary material and surpassed it in popularity. In a sense, motion pictures (~1900, 1927) began to digest historical works and novels. Radio news (1920) summarized newspapers, and then television news (1940-50) emancipated the reader from having to reassemble the data in his head.

Blogs are just a contemporary part of this process; they mostly digest printed news. In ten short years blogs have proliferated to the point of opacity, which is why "microblogging" platforms such as Twitter -- mostly a digest of blogs -- have achieved prominence.

This relentless drive to abbreviate is a mixed blessing. On one hand, we have not so much democratic as demotic access to more information than ever. On the other, such atomization reduces the scope of our knowledge -- it shortens our perspective. That's why Sullivan and company can fool you into thinking they are some sort of information vanguard, when at best they are surfing today's minute of a centuries-long process. Contextualizing the information players casts the meagerness of much of their output in stark and sensible relief.

Footnote: This post, fittingly, is based on a digest of Chapter 4 of The Image, "From Shapes to Shadows: Dissolving Forms", especially pp. 118-149.

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