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
It was the sleepless
summer of Howard the Instigator, the avenging autumn of Arnold the
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
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
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 plunged 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.
ideal of America,” writes the poet Carl Dennis, “is a country held
together not by law or custom but by a network of imaginative filaments
thrown out by autonomous individuals who want to include as many people
as they can in their own acts of self-definition.”
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
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
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
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
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
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 plain sight.
Happy 2004, everybody. It is going to be a Big One!