Quicksilver: Fleshing out history

I’m only part way through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, despite having worked on it all the way back from Boston. So far, so good: fun, intelligent, and multilayered, with the science of Newton and Hooke present but taking a decided back seat to the intrigues of the royal court and the politics of the Royal Society.

One thing the book has done for me is to greatly increase my enjoyment of Samuel Pepys’s blog/diary. I almost laughed out loud reading the entry from October 7, 1660, in which Pepys relates the story of how the Duke of York initially refused to marry Anne Hyde, and concludes with the tongue in cheek proverb: “he that do get a wench with child and marry her afterwards is as if a man should sh*t in his hat and then clap it on his head.” Not exactly the cold dusty hand of history…

Update: I’m not the only one working through the book, it appears; Matthew Kirschenbaum points to this interview with Stephenson in which it is revealed that the whole book, all 900 pages, was written longhand with pen and paper. Kirschenbaum also rightly dings Stephenson for not pointing out that the preservation of paper documents from the 1600s has something to do with libraries.

BloggerCon post mortem 2: Blogging and empowerment

Second post-mortem piece on BloggerCon, trying to dive into the hype and document why I think blogs are revolutionary.

Most of the discussion at BloggerCon, at least on Day One, focused on ways that blogging and the lowered threshold of entry to self-publication facilitated a more empowered, more aware population. I heard an emergent theory of blog empowerment that goes something like this: voice, connection, power. (For background on this piece, read my strawman definition of blogs from the conference.)

Blogs providing voices

By providing a central place for the blogger’s work, the blog collects everything the blogger writes in one place, in a chronology. By reading the blogger’s past writing, we can discover that the blogger has held the same opinion over time, or has changed it; who the blogger likes, whom he or she distrusts; what subjects engage the blogger’s energy; and (by following links back to the blogger) who has opinions about the blogger’s work. By providing this ongoing trail of words, this rich back history, and links, the blogger creates an online voice with history, chronology, evolution, and context.

More importantly, the act of posting thoughts in a blog on the Internet (as opposed to in a private document) enables others to hear that voice. If the blogger’s words are heard, and others enter into dialog, the blogger has ceased to be a passive observer of the Internet and has instead become a creator of it. This enables people—whether 12-year-old confused adolescents, 24-year-old software programmers in cubicle farms, 30-year-old Iraqi translators in Baghdad reporting from inside a war, or sixty-year-old grandmothers with a passion for presidential politics—who might never have written anything before to be read around the world.

In education, blogs are being used as teaching aids to help students, from elementary school through graduate programs, to learn to express their thoughts, read and evaluate other sources, and to enter into dialog. Seminarians who blog learn to take responsibility for their daily thoughts and actions. Business students who blog learn how to cooperate with others in loosely distributed groups to have open and constructive discussions and defend their views. Students in impoverished nations who find gaps in curriculum for their native languages are encouraged to fill the gaps with their own writing.

Blogs mediating connections

A big conference theme was blogs as mediating transformative connections. By providing alternative outlets for publishing commentary on other materials on the web and for relating first-hand experience, blogs enable individuals to publish opinions and other material that might not otherwise be published—this is empowerment by publishing.

Blogs written by individuals inside institutions also, through their personal nature, offer the readers of those blogs a connection to the institution at an individual level that they would not experience otherwise. This empowers them through connecting them more closely to that institution and enabling them to better understand the institution. This is empowerment by access.

Finally, when the blogger outside the institution publishes a comment and a link to the work of the blogger inside the institution, and the institutional blogger reciprocates with a link, a relationship develops between the two, the outsider and the institution, that helps the outsider to understand, and in some cases affect, the institution. This is empowerment by relationship.

In journalism, the effect of this empowerment is to greatly expand the power of the non-institutional observer of events, formerly only a reader or consumer of journalism, to create and publish his own version of events, to enter into dialog with the institution that published the first version, and occasionally—as in the case of Trent Lott—to change the tone of the institutional coverage and affect the course of events.

This is an expanded version of Jim Moore’s thesis of the Second Superpower, because in this scenario blogs empower the people inside the institution as well. By providing voices to the powerless, and by giving a voice in the same sphere to individuals inside institutions, greater understanding between the two parties can be reached, opinions can be formed and shaped, and change can be effected.

At the conference, Chris Lydon, Doc Searls, and others observed that this is a process that has been going on for a long time, since the printing press became available to Tom Paine as a means of disseminating his thoughts on political theory. Dave Weinberger posited that blogs put the nail in the coffin of “objective voices” and help to expose the myriad of overlapping subjectivities by which individual thoughts become part of the public record, shape policy, and create history.

Me? I think there’s a lot of promise. I think a lot of conference attendees were right to point out that blogging is a limited empowerment that presupposes a level of access and literacy that are by themselves pretty empowering. But there is something about the way this particular method of communication has shaped up that gives me hope.

BloggerCon post mortem 1: What is a blog?

I’ve been sitting on a few short responses to BloggerCon since last Sunday. I’m not pleased with them yet, but if I sit on them any longer they’ll get even staler, so here goes.

What is a blog?

BloggerCon started by taking an explicitly technology neutral view of blogs, one that discussed the implications of blogs rather than what they were. On Day One (the only day I attended), there was no discussion of the construction of blogs and fundamental operations of blogging. A brief definition, then:

Blogs are personally published documents on the web, with attribution and date, collected in a single place, generally published with a static structure to facilitate incoming links from other sources, and updated with some regularity and frequency from every few days to several times daily. Blogs are generally understood to be subjective, with no authority other than that lent by their author generally. Many blogs consist of links and commentary—comments about something or some entity with a web presence, links to enable the reader to discover the original object being commented on and explore it for themselves. Bloggers leave link trails, hyperlinks back to the subjects of their commentary, and the link trails enable others to go beyond the blogger’s subjective opinion and find the original source so that they can evaluate it and form their own opinions.

Blogging thus differs from general web pages in frequency, intent and practice. Rather than claiming authority, blogs assume subjectivity and let the reader make up his own mind. Rather than a collection of documents that define an object on the Internet—for instance, a company, a university, a person’s family tree—blogs are glosses on those objects, marginal annotations that unlike other forms of web comments such as the “sticky note” feature in IE have permanence of their own on the Web. Unlike a threaded discussion group (web board or Usenet), where there are generally no authoritative methods to find a prior message and no central record of a person’s contributions and opinions, blogs host the author’s comments in a single place, at a personal address, and in a chronology so that others can review the blogger’s thoughts and comments in one location. By keeping a permanent record of the blogger’s writings in a central place, a blog implies a certain amount of accountability for the author’s words and opinions; in other online communities, this accountability is generally left up to the community to enforce.