The Intellectual Situation
The Blog Reflex
Paul Virilio once proposed an intriguingly reductive account of world history. Progress was merely the history of speed: in warfare, infantry gave way to chariots, then horses, then tanks, and finally air power (used, er, to bomb infantry). He also coined the phrase “endo-colonization” to describe the accelerating attempts of states and corporations to exploit, as thoroughly as they have the earth, the last available frontier, our minds.
Shoot-outs, flame wars, the gold rush, and the transcontinental railroad all meet in the so-called blogosphere, as the various news corporations, frightened by the flight of readers and consequent loss of ad revenue, aim to recapture the great prize of our attention. But why are we so eager to bless their pages with our hits? The fast-moving history of technology here meets—as truck meets armadillo on the highway—the slow-moving history of thought. Kierkegaard wrote, “Our present age is one of advertising and publicity.” That was in 1846! The perfect subject of this new epoch in world history was the newspaper reader, paralyzed by endless information. Sustained passion gave way to momentary enthusiasms. Kierkegaard had a homey analogy for what it was like to live in this state of constant mental stimulation: Imagine a grandfather clock that strikes at random intervals. You can’t tell time by it and yet you begin to live in constant anticipation of the next random chime. In this way, Kierkegaard’s present age (still ours) ironically fulfilled the messianic promise that “time shall be no more.”
A more recent fantasy of revolution was that, hooked up to newswires, all this information at our fingertips, we’d get mad as hell and not take it any more. Instead, people took up blogging. Information would be linked, not to the body politic, but to—links! And more links! Links links links! Readers could now be writers; but was this all that was meant by seizing the means of production? “Citizen journalists” could monitor the professionals from the margins. This, at least, was one much-lauded aspect of blogging, and it was somewhat real (except that the best early news blogs were mostly written by professionals challenging other professionals). Then, of course, like all technological developments, blogs fell prey to existing market forces and inequalities of means, especially time and money. Capital beat out the citizenry. The same reactionary lunatics who dominated talk radio entered the blogosphere. Entrepreneurs like Nick Denton seized the chance to become the Murdochs of the new medium. Advertisers started prospecting in their wake, and the fragile human mind caved in.
A corollary to Virilio’s theory of history was that each new stage in technology gave rise to new accidents. To understand the technology, you also needed to anticipate the accidents. When writing first developed, ancient philosophers feared it would destroy human memory; to write anything down was to put yourself in the position of that guy in the movie Memento. And this wasn’t totally wrong. Also, letters: they had a funny way of getting lost or opened by the wrong people. The first accident in writing came about when a king was instructed to “kill the bearer of this letter.” Fortunately, the intended bearer could read, too, and sent someone else in his place.