Monday, August 29, 2005

Advent of the blogocratic deformation?

People have always talked about politics; more importantly, in America "the people" have always talked about politics. Cracker barrel conversation is rightly numbered among our nation's distinguishing characteristics, and that kind of conversation has, perversely, for the most part allowed a lid to be kept on the populist impulse. Since we're free to talk about things, we don't feel like we have to do much, or at least much in the vein of Wat Tyler, about those things.

Technology has, of course, altered both the tone and content of political conversation (beginning with radio and then television in the US, and proceeding apace into the Information Age) -- and for those seeking to understand the impact of the Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular, it's worth considering the possibility that those alterations have not all been for the better.

Since the blogging phenomenon captured my attention (and then captured me, proper), I've felt that bloggers tend to take themselves a little too seriously (and yes, mea maxima culpa). Lately, that feeling has given way to an emerging, not yet fully formed fear that everyone else may make the mistake of taking us too seriously as well.

Easy web publishing -- that's all blogging really is -- doesn't just make a soapbox available to anyone and everyone with an axe to grind. It also creates the illusion that Axe Grinder A's ideas are inherently as worthy (or at least as worthy of consideration) as Axe Grinder B's and C's and D's ideas. The blogosphere is fast proving true Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the medium is the message." That worries me, because it portends a flat, equalized view of message as such, paired with filtering through the same polling mechanisms that have been playing hob with political decisionmaking for a couple of decades now, to produce something that looks a lot like Government By Blog.

Sorry if this sounds Orwellian; it really isn't. As a matter of fact, it's the opposite of 1984-style oligarchy ... but, like so many pairs of opposites, these two share certain attributes. In oligarchy, the oligarchs fine tune their propaganda to play to the sentiments of the proles. A blogocratic polling function attached to our present hyper-pluralism would not displace our oligarchs -- it would merely press the blogosphere into their service as the fine-tuners. Winston Smith on WordPress, so to speak.

A far-out vision? I don't think so. During the period that Republicans refer to as "The Eight Dark Years," the premier political accusation against President Bill Clinton was that he formed his policies by closely following polling numbers and then, per Dick Morris, "triangulating" in on the positions that would increase his "positives" and keep his "negatives" down. The blogosphere, by its very nature, is positioned to be Rasmussen squared, Zogby cubed, Harris to infinity and beyond:

- With the right tools, sampling is instantaneous. There's no need to sign a contract, write a check and wait for a pollster to have his boiler room operators call a thousand voters. "Trend tools" (like this one) make it possible to compare attitudes over a given time period and to get the results in seconds.

- The blogosphere is both larger than almost any reasonable poll sample and better fitted than traditional polling operations for distinguishing the randomly selected voter who answers his phone from the guy who actually throws the weight of action and activism behind his political beliefs -- or, if you will, distinguishing the contented sheep who are happy to pull a lever for one of two choices presented them from those who seek to be shepherds and actually frame the choices. If you've got the shepherds in hand, you've got their flocks with them.

Would "government by blog" as bad as "government by opinion poll?" Personally, I think it would be worse. I don't go the full boat with Rousseau in asserting an inchoate "general will" which, if discerned, would constitute nearly divine guidance, but I do think that taking the blogosphere as representative of any "general" will is a big mistake.

The farmers and factory workers around the aforementioned cracker barrel have opinions -- but they also know they're farmers and factory workers, not inspired cognoscenti upon whose every word the machinery of government should turn. Their opinions are usually reasonably simple, even simplistic, and that's not a bad thing. They're the voices of competing principles and worldviews, not the purveyors of detailed policy proposals. While I'd give a lot to achieve a society in which they are completely in charge of their own fates (and therefore become not only the purveyors, but the implementors, of their own policy proposals), the fact is that right now we live in a society with a state sitting on top of it.

Political bloggers are -- pardon me while I, pot, call the kettle black -- snobs. Every quibbledick with a Blogger account and some search engine optimization skills thinks he's Henry Kissinger, on steroids and with a think tank operating out of his guest bedroom. We churn out policy demands, with supporting cases for those demands, at the speed of write. And the simple fact is that most of us don't have even as much, let alone more, information on which to base those policy demands; or even as much as, let alone more, in the way of real political knowledge, than the people in government who are increasingly keeping an ear open to what we're talking about. Do we really want those listeners to assume that we know what we're talking about? Of course, I do know what I'm talking about ... but I also know that for every government functionary reading Kn@ppster, there will be ten of the little bastards stovepiping nonsense straight from Little Green Footballs to the White House Situation Room.

The bottom line is that I'd rather have the people whose hands rest on the the levers of state listening to (and attempting to cater to) the principles and worldviews of those farmers and factory workers than to the detailed policy demands emanating from blogosphere. Hell, I'd rather see these things play out in a manner resembling the "Delphi Boards" in John Brunner's Shockwave Rider, or related to the already existing market futures exchanges on political developments. At least that would be more broadly based and market-driven than blogosphere "triangulation."

Res Publica Delenda Est -- but until that day, God save us from Rule By Blog Wonks.

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