Ever searching for intellectual stimulation, the Dowbrigade wandered into Austin Hall at the Harvard Law School for a ten-year semi-reunion of the blogging bad boys who brought us “The Cluetrain Manifesto“, a cry for significance by a thin slice of the Web’s original demographic, aging white guys. A demographic in which, in the name of full disclosure, the Dowbrigade also remains proudly ensconced.
Of the four original cluesters, Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine, two were in attendance (Searls and Weinberger) at this Berkman Center event, the purpose of which was to evaluate where we are today, ten years after the book came out and thirty years into the digital revolution, with respect to the 95 theses (the Dowbrigade confesses to hearing asperated “F”s whenever these were mentioned – gotta check the old rearing aid) which the quartet nailed to the virtual cathedral door back in 1999. Jonathan Zittrain kept thing moving along in a spritely fahion.
The question we have today is the same as the question we had when we first read “The Cluetrain Manifesto” nine years ago. It is: “Is there anything inherant in the digital revolution which will lead to change which liberates, empowers and increases transparency?”
The four Cluetrain authors conclude, with some misgivings, that there is. The contrary view holds that the internet is a supremely powerful tool which, like most other tools, is neutral in its essential nature until imbued with purpose by a human being, and that digital technologies can just as easily be used to control, manipulate and obscure as to enlighten. Lets get a little context on the question.
The distinguishing characteristic of our species is its unique use of tools. Sure, some marsupials use sticks to pick up ants, but that’s a far cry from the Hubble Telescope. Over the ages, the development of human culture has been primed by a series of technological changes involving tools, some of which were revolutionary and some of which were transformative. See the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the invention of paper, the invention of gunpowder, the Industrial Revolution.
We agree with David Weinberger that the digital revolution is going to be the most transformative change since Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Western writers. Yet we believe that both the nature and the particulars of the transformation will not come into focus for years, decades, or even centuries. Will it be liberating, empowering and anti-heirarchical, or co-opted and big-brothered into a digital feed directly into the frontal lobes of a passive populace? As far as the Dowbrigade is concerned, the jury is still out.
The audience in Austin Hall was at least as august as the presenters. We are going to try to limit our name dropping to a single paragraph, so if you find this sort of thing offensive feel free to skip to the next paragraph (BUT NO FURTHER). California Dan Gilmore sat next to Dan Bricklin, inventor of visicalc (how sick he must be of that apelation, but how can one leave it out in a forum like this), who ran around with a microphone like an assistant grip, SJ of One-Laptop-per-Child fame, the ever-alluring Halley Suitt instigated the musical microphone drill, and Amanda Wattlington, were there, among many others.
They, and the webcast audience weighing in via Twitter, were interested in how the Cluetrain doctrine had or had not impacted the political sphere, and the presenters made some spot on comments about the diaspora of digital talent following the implosion of the Dean campaign and how it affected pretty much everybody on the Democratic side of the race. However, there was much breast-beating and dispair over how the digital dreams seem to have dissapated over the Obama gang as they transmutated from campaign to administration.
Well, duh. Score one for the tool side. Some human beings are master tool-users. They will use whatever tools are available to achieve their aims. If new tools are invented, they will learn to use them. If they cannot, they will use other people as tools, to manipulate the new tools. This is a law of human nature.
Let us not forget that human nature has not changed for at least 15,000 years, which is about as far back as we have a detailed idea of how people lived and acted, and we cannot expected it to change within our lifetimes. The printing press may have transformed human culture and history, but read Livy or Plutarch or Lao Tzu and you can see that politics, statesmanship and warfare have stayed true to form since way before Gutenberg. In light of this it seems futile to hope that the internet will fundamentally transform American politics, at least in the near future.
The other lesson we take from this is that the most profound effects of transformative technological change take a long time to develop. When printing presses first appeared in Europe, they were used largely by the Church, to print Bibles and prayer books and maintain its monopoly in erudition. It was 200 years before newspapers achieved widespread currency.
The emergence of a global information network is certainly the most profound event of our lifetimes, in terms of its effects on human society. Yet it seems naiive and unrealistic to assume that the changes it engenders will be positive or iconoclastic or subversive. It may just be that the inventors and innovators and early adopters of new tools are positive and iconoclastic and subversive. Once the value of a new tool is demonstrated, it may fall to the most powerful, or the highest bidder, to determine its evenual use.
Which is not necessarily an evil thing. Those eventual uses, like the motivaiton of the users, will be determinded by human nature, which, in the final analysis, is an uneasy amalgam of good and evil. Which means that the work we do, and the decisions we make, can have an effect on the case at hand, can offer mute testimony to the positive potential of the digital revolution. The jury is still out, and the case is still open. Testify.