Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ask the Questions; Don't Dictate the Answers!

The reason why Nieman Watchdog is on my What I Read list is best captured by the subtitle on their header: "Questions the press should ask." In an age in which media treatments of the news have more to do with self-serving (if not self-deluding) distortion than with the fulfillment of a "public trust," we all need the benefit of the sort of "watchdog" provided by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. I therefore find myself seriously annoyed with Dan Froomkin, Deputy Editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project, for using his bully pulpit to promote the shallow thinking of Web 2.0 evangelism in his Commentary piece, "It's time for a Wiki White House." This has nothing to do with the Nieman agenda and may ultimately confound that agenda by finding one more avenue to raise the noise level over what is already a weak signal.

I have no problem with Froomkin embracing the principle that "the Internet doesn't look kindly on information that just flows one way;" but, like many of the media sources that the Nieman Foundation criticizes so rightly, he uses this principle to hang himself (and therefore his readers) on a dangerous half truth. The half truth is that communication is not strictly a matter of the flow of information, and confusing the latter for the former can have dire consequences on how governance is practiced. Once we get beyond the naive view of information as a resource, we can begin to recognize that the quality of any social order is primarily a function of the conversations it supports and the capacity of those conversations to shape its structures and processes. Equally naive is Froomkin's apparent effort to reduce such conversation to talking, listening, and responding.

Consider his account of where the Obama team has already puts its boots on the ground, so to speak:

And there are already auspicious signs that Obama intends to continue using the Internet in compelling new ways [beyond mobilizing voters and raising campaign funds]. His transition Web site, change.gov, launched with not only press releases and position papers, but a blog – and several nascent opportunities for public participation. “The story of bringing this country together as a healed and united nation will be led by President-Elect Obama,” the Web site states, “but written by you.”

First of all, anyone who has visited the blog that Froomkin has cited knows that it does not accept comments, which means that it is not that different from New York Law School professor and technology expert Beth Noveck's dismissal of the current Administration's Web site as "brochure-ware." Those "nascent opportunities for public participation" amount to a rather feeble context-limited (if not context-free) form through which you can state your piece with little knowledge that anyone, even your fellow blog readers, will ever see, let alone read, it. This is not conversation. This is, if the metaphor has not already been used to death, lipstick on a pig.

What Froomkin fails (or has been too addled by Web 2.0 Kool-Aid) to recognize is that conversation, as it takes place in social situations where computers do not mediate, does not necessarily scale to the level of a President trying to "engage" with his electorate. When I read Froomkin envisioning a White House staff that will listen and respond to "information input" from that electorate, I am reminded of my wife's reaction as a teacher who now has to deal with electronic mail from her pupils' parents: What part of my job do you want me to stop doing, so I can put time into giving this electronic mail the attention it deserves? I would modestly suggest that, in the absence of a serious commitment of "attention resources" to deal with the volume of traffic that the Internet produces, Froomkin's vision risks turning our representative government into a plebiscitary one. I would then further suggest that government by plebiscite is the first step down the road to totalitarian fascism. Consider the extent to which the Wiki vision of the "wisdom of crowds" can easily devolve into the madness of brute force. Consider the extent to which Google's appreciation of the subtleties of governance may best be described as "Philistine," even as their belief in "making money without doing evil" is flouted by a technology whose primary function seems to be cultivating public addiction to consumerism. Is this a world in which the Executive Branch of our government can and will "converse" with its citizens? There may be flaws in our representative system, but would a "brave new world" of "Internet information flow" resolve those flaws or replace them with more serious ones?

This is not Luddite thinking. I am not recommending that we throw our wooden shoes into the workings of the Internet. I am only recommending that "watchdog thinking" be applied to one who is trying to promote answers when he should be asking critical questions appropriate to his station. Rather than promoting technologies, a watchdog should be asking questions about those technologies having to do with the consequences of using those technologies, becoming dependent on them, and becoming victims when others discover how to turn use into abuse.

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