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Speaking of pregnant pre-revolutionary pauses…

     It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

     It was an era of propaganda, it was the age of information.  It was the season of Google in the Republic of Rush; a time of sudden free access to the wisdom of the world and of unrepentant OxyContin rant on the radio. 

     It was the sleepless summer of Howard the Instigator, the avenging autumn of Arnold the Terminator. 

     It was the season of www and of dubya, dubya, dubya. 

     It was the high noon of NPR; it was the rising moon of iPods and the mp3. 

     It was a time to read Ha’aretz and Al Ahram, the New York Times and The Onion, all online. 

     It was a moment when Mickey Mouse, age 76, was still a Disney slave, a time when many other squeaky new voices were noisy and free: Daily Kos and Atrios, Billmon and Instapundit, Doc Searls and Ed Cone, Tacitus and Joi Ito. 

     It was a time when “the media” seemed tired and only the bloggers were fresh.

     We live at the end of 2003 with more astonishments and revaluations than we can keep track of.

     Howard Dean Rising is no more wondrous, really, than John Kerry Disappearing: the “warrior liberal” and short-odds pick for the Democratic nomination now running behind Carol Mosely Braun and Al Sharpton in the Harris poll. 

     It is a season of economic recovery, we’re told, and of permanent emergency. 

     It’s been a month of official “We’ve Got Him” triumphalism coming out of Iraq, bumping into official notices of an Orange Alert across America. 

     The Christmas season fad has been to fault heretical Howard for observing that we’re no safer with Saddam in hand; a Christmas season in which the bellicose Berlusconi in Italy huddled with the Vatican around the risk of a hijacked-airliner assault on St. Peter’s in Rome.

     On March 18 of this year, I wrote to the Harvard Law School’s new Berkman Fellow, Dave Winer: “Yesterday I couldn’t spell blog.  Tomorrow I want to be one!  Very very eager to meet you.” 

     The man, then his Manila blogging software, and for nine months his Thursday night blogging seminar were encounters that shift one’s perspective fundamentally and, despite everything, hopefully. 

     It took me months to learn, then forget, all those coded capital letters: XML, HTML, RSS and such; to handle them as instruments marshalled in the blogosphere just in time to rescue the American privilege of democratic speech. 

     Dave Winer pushed me to try audio-blogging and to start by interviewing him.  Bob Doyle at skyBuilders.com showed me how to edit a minidisc recording into an mp3 file, and to post it on the Web.  Blogging with sound, it dawned on me, could be talk radio on steroids: free, independent, global, instant, anti-commercial, substantive, serious work and play.

     To Dave and Bob and to the cheerful adventurers in the Berkman Center where I write, no end of thanks.  To the several score of interview subjects who have pulunged with me in this experiment, thanks and admiration.  And to the generous readers and listeners out there, more of the same.  In a dire time, it feels like a fresh and promising start in a new direction.

     Blogging is a very American thing, as Dave likes to say.  It might not seem so strange to our 19th Century champions of expressive democracy, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his friend Walt Whitman, for example. 


      “Whitman’s ideal of


     Read that again, please.  It is precisely the bloggers’ vision.

     In blog space I meet the spirit of Amber in another dimension.   “Amber” (not her real name) was our favorite caller in talk radio: learned, funny, lightning-quick, in call-in combat fully the equal of guests as facile as Camille Paglia, William F. Buckley, William Safire and Gore Vidal.  Amber, I discovered, was thirty-ish, high-school educated, a Caribbean orphan, not quite legal in this country, poor and passionate about everything.  In awe I asked her once: how does she know so much about the world?  “I watch all the network news programs,” she said, “and know that they’re wrong about everything.  None of them know my neighborhood.”

     Amber became my oracle of the other world that lives in our midst.  She embodies some of the lessons I learned in radio, my first two-way medium after years with the New York Times and public television.  Lesson #1:  the country observes media more astutely than media observe the country.  Lesson #2:  that the country is hipper, flipper, more constructive, more democratic, more articulate than the one-way media ever deign to acknowledge.  There is nobody quite like Amber in the blogosphere, but there are innumerable gifted variations on the outspoken theme. 

     Next year, by the way, Amber will have her own blog.  When we spoke the other day, Amber said she is hoping George W. Bush gets reelected so that he, not the Democrats, will have to clean up the mess he has made.  I said: “Amber, four more years of W. and this country could be unrecognizable.” 

     She said: “Chris, it is unrecognizable.”

     I don’t believe Amber’s last line.  Not quite yet anyway.  The rarest, most precious thing about this Internet moment, this Blogging Era, is that in a revolutionary crisis we actually have a revolutionary vision to meet it.  The power of the web is not in its hardware or its software.  It will never be reducible to “wires and lights in a box,” as Edward R. Murrow foresaw about television. 
    
     On the contrary, the power of the web is that it models a complexity of social networks that we would love even if we didn’t need them so acutely. 

     When George W. Bush’s long 15 minutes are finally over, when the scary American spasm of  post-9/11 neo-pseudo-imperialism subsides, the Internet will be the indispensable vehicle for getting the world where it had to go anyway.

      At the level of individuals, as blogging now demonstrates, the Internet can lift the suffocating burden of “mass” media off the expressive ambition that is born in each and all of us.  At the national level–as in Iran’s reform movement, in South Korea, in the Dean campaign–free Internet conspiracy can topple holy hierarchies of corruption and other bad habits.  Globally, the Internet is the main avenue and new model of instant interactivity across borders of every kind.  The way is open, easy of access, inherently anti-imperial, as individual and intimate as it needs to be, and also a public resource for mobilization on a staggering international agenda.

     With a motley assortment of people I’ve interviewed–Scott Heiferman, Dick Morris, David Weinberger notable among them–I have come to believe that this long-awaited Internet transformation is now under-hyped in the general marketplace of ideas.  The Web will be much more important than television or even the telephone, more consequential than Gutenberg’s movable type.  It is not as big as, say, the first crawl of species out of the primeval ooze onto dry land.  It might be as big as the development of spoken language.

     Among the things I hope for in 2004 is more consideration of the grandest imaginable (including spiritual) dimensions of this transition.

     Perhaps because I fed long ago on the Jesuit paleontologist, evolutionist and speculative theologian Teilhard de Chardin, I return to him now for nourishment, imaginative scope and, yes, a kind of prophecy.  In the 1930s, between the World Wars, Teilhard first observed and felt a grand coalescence underway, a stage of evolution, the foundation (not least) of Marshall McLuhan’s pop phrases in the 1960s about the global “electric culture” and the “global village.” 

     Teilhard coined the term “noosphere” to stand for a new “thinking orbit” around the world, a membrane of mind that was virtually biological, an incandescent glow of shared consciousness.  As humanity builds the noosphere, and as we become aware of our group mind, Teilhard wrote, “we have the beginning of a new age.  The earth gets a new skin.  Better still, it finds its soul.”

     We need more fresh writing about the Internet at that level of ecstasy.

      Speaking of ecstasy: still and always I hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, first and best among American public thinkers, affirming us bloggers:  “Live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind,” Emerson wrote (in 1837).  “For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destrying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men value the few real hours of life; they love to be heard.”

     And as for the presidential campaign in the year to come, and the Internet’s real debut in it, Emerson again has the gravest warning and the most consoling affirmation I know–all tucked into the conclusion of his essay (1850) on “Montaigne; Or, The Skeptic”:

     “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general aims are somehow answered.  We see, now, events forced on, which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages.  But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves can not drown him.  He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means.  Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

     So here is a cheerful New Year’s Eve bet on the world spirit and on the Internet as its closest approximation in sight. 

     Happy 2004, everybody.  It is going to be a Big One!

{ 4 } Comments

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  3. dizi | May 15, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    It was the sleepless summer of Howard the Instigator, the avenging autumn of Arnold the Terminator.

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