Creative Destruction

April 9, 2006

The Ascent of the Blog

Filed under: Blogosphere,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 12:56 pm

Our information environment had been monopolized in the last fifty years or so by large, corporate interests. Whether it be newspapers, book and magazine publishers, politicians, educators and textbook publishers, television, radio, advertisers, etc., the focus and flow of information has been from those with organized, bureaucratic, commercial, and political agendas to the masses. It’s probably conspiratorial to believe that an orchestrated attempt to control the cultural mindspace has been underway, but because of the way information is structured and consumed, a high level of control has nonetheless been effected.

When information is collected and disseminated by any clearinghouse, an inevitable filtering process alters meaning to some degree. News reporting, for example, is hardly characterized by an objective, just-the-facts perspective one might wish for. The simple decision what to include and/or exclude creates a context that channels the perception of the reader/viewer. Anyone who has witnessed an event later reported by the media knows that the story is shaped and massaged, often in an egregiously distorted manner. Some may recognize when they are being served propaganda, but not always. (You can fool some of the people all of the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time.) Advertisers are the most obvious propagandizers but not the only ones.

One of the surprising developments the latest communications innovations (following the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, the telephone, the moving picture, the television) have given us is the blog. The blogosphere is characterized by individuals publishing their personal observations and opinions. Nothing could be more democratic. Although there are a few corporate-sponsored blogs, that’s not yet the nature of the beast. If there is cause for hope in the culture, and I believe there is, perhaps it’s that some have broken the information monopoly and are collecting and disseminating their own views, filtered through individual experience rather than a corporate agenda. Political agendas persist, but they are relatively simple to recognize and diffuse.

Perhaps the best collateral effect of the blog is a return to language. “What? We never abandoned language,” one might say. In the nominal sense, no. But today is the time of the image. “A picture speaks a thousand words,” it used to be said. We’ve forgotten how significant that is. Prior to the photograph, images were stylized and nonliteral depictions of reality and weren’t the dominant means of transmitting information — language was. Although historical literacy rates were nothing like those of the 20th or 21st century, the cultural mind was synonymous to the typographical mind. Information was processed first and foremost through language. The sequential, syntactical, propositional nature of language necessarily shapes information and knowledge, leading to a reasoned, logical way of thinking, which in turn has obvious implications for cultural and political discourse. The robust practice of publishing pamphlets and broadsides in the Revolutionary Era and the development of formidable writers, thinkers, and philosophes such as Thomases Paine and Jefferson is instructive.

Photographic images lack those characteristics and instead rely on intuitive and emotional processing, requiring little context as they are mostly self-contained. Video is essentially an extension of the photograph, giving the still image an aspect of time. Captions and dialogue embedded in pictures and video are not the dominant element, and in fact, the processing of the purely visual aspects of video interferes with language processing, not the other way around.

Most blogs, in contrast, are primarily text. Habits of mind necessary to craft effective messages are learnt through imitating worthy models and through trial and error. Clearly, though, more lay people (not professional writers) are learning to deploy language with greater facility and effectiveness, mostly free from the corrupting influence of commerce (though probably infused with the corrupting influence of self-aggrandizement and celebrity). No copy editor tells a blogger to punch up this or that aspect of a post or to avoid embarrassing the sponsors.

Cross-posted at The Spiral Staircase.

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5 Comments »

  1. Although historical literacy rates were nothing like those of the 20th or 21st century, the cultural mind was synonymous to the typographical mind.

    If literacy rates in the Western world were very low, how on earth could the “typographical mind” have been the norm, or text been the dominant mode of communication?

    Those are rhetorical questions, of course: because historically, spoken language and pictures, not written text, were the normal mode among an illiterate people.

    Comment by mythago — April 9, 2006 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with you about a text in particular, Brutus. The Podcasting fad is something that I absolutely have no use for–I was written text that I can qoute and refer to with ease; that I can read in sections and digest at my leasure.

    And the wonderful thing about the blog is that there is a certain accountability which the spoken word doesn’t have, and even newspapers, which are thrown away after you are done with them, lacked. When someone contradicts themselves, you can actually find the quotes in which they do that and put them next to each other. That sort of thing.

    But yeah, I think this is one of those subjects you’ll find we probably agree on 🙂

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 9, 2006 @ 3:14 pm | Reply

  3. If literacy rates in the Western world were very low, how on earth could the “typographical mind” have been the norm, or text been the dominant mode of communication?

    Not the dominant mode of communication, the dominant mode of organizing information into knowledge and wisdom. They’re not the same thing. It’s about a way of thinking, not a way of communicating, where function follows form.

    Those are rhetorical questions, of course: because historically, spoken language and pictures, not written text, were the normal mode among an illiterate people.

    When spoken language is mediated by the form and character of type, even illiterates are affected. Do you suppose that servants, themselves not members of the court, had no idea how to behave in a courtly manner? There is evidence that the man-on-the-street participation in politics was far greater in the 17th and 18th centuries in N. Amer. Illiterates can be read to, BTW.

    In contrast, now that the dominant mode of information is the image, even the literate and intelligent among us have no small difficulty with type as a mode of thought. Look no further than the comments section of most any blog or user reviews on Amazon.com for evidence that many people can’t organize their thoughts in writing. Some are definitely improving their ability to do just that, which I noted is a salutary effect of the blogosphere.

    Comment by Brutus — April 9, 2006 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  4. In contrast, now that the dominant mode of information is the image

    Except it isn’t. If it were, we’d still have silent movies. Listening to spoken dialogue with imagines is just as much information reception as ‘illiterates being read to’–and the organization of movies, for example, starts from text.

    I don’t think the comments section of Amazon is an objective measure of how the rise of images has killed literacy, frankly.

    Comment by mythago — April 10, 2006 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  5. Mythago wrote: Except it isn’t. If it were, we’d still have silent movies. Listening to spoken dialogue with imagines is just as much information reception as ‘illiterates being read to’–and the organization of movies, for example, starts from text.

    Rather than continue in an is too/is not style of argument, I’ll offer some evidence.

    “The image — concrete, unique, nonparaphrasable — versus the word — abstract, conceptual, translatable. This is one of several conflicts between TV and school, and perhaps the most important. For obvious reasons that have to do with the structure of telvision, its curriculum is essentially imagistic, that is, picture-centered.” This is from Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity.

    He contrasts the TV curriculum with the school curriculum and notes that students commit 30% more time to TV than school, at least in 1979 when the book was published. I see little to suggest that number would have diminished significantly. My own experience in the classroom is that many students cannot speak in coherent sentences. They have ideas but can’t express them in language. They’re blunted.

    Mythago: I don’t think the comments section of Amazon is an objective measure of how the rise of images has killed literacy, frankly.

    OK, you’re free to disagree, but you’re disagreeing with something I never said. The image hasn’t killed literacy. Rather, it’s transformed the way we think from a greater reliance on reason and logic (which are language based) to reliance on intuition and emotion (which are how images are processed). When the media we attend to is dominated by one type of processing or another, naturally, that’s how we learn to think. Any study of any of the arts quickly reveals that the medium controls habits of mind: to think in terms of painting, dance, or music is not at all the same as to think in terms of math or biology. They have different languages, grammars, biases, etc. Similarly, contrasts exist between text and image (or, if you prefer, books and TV). The public clearly spends more of its time with the latter, though not to the total exclusion of the former.

    Comment by Brutus — April 10, 2006 @ 10:58 am | Reply


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