The Internet and its culture of instantaneity

Joseph Rago on the impact blogs and the Internet have on journalism and news:

The most consequential development since 2006 is that the pace of change is still accelerating. Amory Blaine’s augury in This Side of Paradise

“Modern life . . . no longer changes century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before—populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic independence, racial questions, and—we’re dawdling along. My idea is that we’ve got to go very much faster.”

—has become a reality, but very much faster.

Ponder Twitter, the Internet service founded in 2006 on the view that blogs—with their words strung together to form sentences and then paragraphs, maybe even three or four of them in semi-logical succession—were too prolix. Just about every reporter, Washington staffer, operative, wonk, consultant, think tank gnome, and news junkie in America uses Twitter, which has become the Internet’s front page, as it were, and means that the entire political conversation takes place hour by hour, nanosecond by nanosecond, in 140-character increments. The result is a grinding, hallucinatory, face- and brain-melting meta-Mobius strip of facts, factoids, links, jokes, comments, comments on comments, comments on comments on comments, opinions about opinions, all in real time. I find Twitter indispensible professionally, sometimes.

I think I was more right than wrong, or less wrong, about instantaneity. The promise of cyberspace is that all the world’s knowledge will be immediately searchable and retrievable, yet in reality its instantaneity seems to induce a kind of amnesia, with each day, hour, second begetting breaking news of astonishing events that have been happening over and over again for years and decades.

The Internet’s eternal “now” constitutes a media demand shock unlike anything in history. Because any given composition only lasts for a few hours, a day or two at most, the appetite for new content is tremendous, especially when nothing newsworthy is going on. Think of storied periodicals like the Atlantic Monthly (Emerson, Longfellow, Twain) and National Review (Buckley, Chambers, Burnham) that now publish more on their web sites every day than any single human could reasonably, or even want to, read. One result is that journalism is far more evanescent, written to be disposable—and I work for a daily, once the rock bottom of intransience. Think: fishwrap, but without the secondary utility. The Internet’s incentives more often than not favor the sensational, the obvious, the melodramatic, and the shallow, as long as it drives clicks, advertising volume, and “search engine optimization.” “The Blog Mob” wasn’t meant to be—but was—ideal for web economics.

To play Transparent Eyeball for a moment, my sense is that the level of bullshit in American politics is increasing, though of course there is no way of measuring the tendency or detecting if technology is to blame and by how much. Bullshit, as defined by the Princeton moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is distinct from lying in that it is produced without any concern for the truth. It doesn’t even need to be false, exaggerated, or misleading. The bullshitter is simply indifferent to truth and falsity. Partly I suspect that is because the velocity of the Internet often compels the politicos to have opinions on subjects they know nothing about, and say things and express outrage that they obviously don’t believe. It also serves as a platform to a bunch of pseuds, cranks, and reverse King Midases (everything they touch turns to garbage).

On the Internet, everyone is increasingly entitled to their own facts and at the current moment political epistemology is especially unsettled. My mob thesis owed to an overdose of Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who has theorized about self-contained “information cocoons.” No doubt, technological change has created more feedback loops and opportunities to confirm what political consumers already believe. But perhaps it is simply revealing what was always true, like the receding tide.

If the era of concentrated journalistic power, when a few big dailies and TV stations set the political agenda, is definitively concluded, the mainstream media has responded with “fact checking.” These watchdog news outfits claim to debunk misinformation and separate truth from falsehood, under the auspices of Pinocchios, “lies,” and the Truth-O-Meter. But mostly what they do is disagree with opinions and genuine differences of principle and values, dressed up with raw appeals to authority. The juvenility—“pants on fire,” really?—is an obvious byproduct of the Internet, but fact checking is really an MSM confession that the public does not trust journalists to report “facts” in the first place.

“The ‘Blog Mob’ revisited” (The New Criterion)


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