Guest Editorial

Tom Stites tried to comment on my post after our great lunch meeting Monday, but had to send an email instead. You’d think that blog software would be more tractable but not yet – it’s not like I’m a luddite, eh?

Here’s Tom’s message:

Hi Britt — I’m finally back from the dial-up purgatory of my New York B&B stay and have had a chance to go spelunking in the links in your nice post about our lunch and conversations. There’s always much to learn from the links smart people stick in their writing, which is why I’ve come to believe that the Web is a much better way to deliver quality journalism than print.

I set out to leave a comment on your post but I couldn’t find a door on your blog that would open to let me register to do so. Do you have this feature disabled or am I overlooking something?

(Memo to self: create a web framework that makes blogging and commenting easy.)

In any event, the main reason for the comment I was imagining is this excerpt from Tom Piazza’s excellent but unfortunately titled book, The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz:

In a jazz group, as in any community, certain roles need to be filled. Someone has to play the melody, someone has to keep time, someone has to suggest the harmonic context. Often these jobs overlap. In jazz, each instrumentalist has to understand his or her role in the group well enough so that he or she can improvise on it and not just follow directions. Playing in a jazz group involves both responsibility and freedom; freedom consists of understanding your responsibility well enough to act independently and still make the needed contribution to the group. As such, a jazz performance is a working model of democracy.

This certainly supports your sense of jazz as a fine metaphor for OSS2. And the metaphor extends to where old-school journalism and the BSphere diverge: Not everybody can play jazz. No small number of superb musicians are lost without the score in front of them. For related reasons no small number of music lovers have zero appreciation of jazz.

I share your faith that in an Open Source Society “the right person will show up with the right contribution at the right time” and that “the value of that ad hoc contribution will be obvious.” I just don’t see any evidence that this phenomenon will be distributed evenly across all the topics and political geographies that people need to be informed about to make solid life and citizenship decisions.

Common sense, at least what passes for common sense in what’s left of my mind, tells me that people are quite likely to show up with the right contribution at the right time in communities of geography and interest whose population is disproportionately endowed with easy and continuous broadband access, certain thinking, writing and technical skills, and the motivation to take part. Municipalities with populations like these — Westport, Conn., is an excellent example — have excellent Web gatherings where the right people show up with the right contribution at the right time. But this works less well up the road in Bridgeport, were such folks are scarce. And it works hardly at all in the Global South, where billions subsist on $1 a day — or in highly secretive institutions like the World Trade Organization, which play their music only from the score and only for an elite private audience. Perhaps someday there will be an eschatological moment and the needed OSS2 skills and resources will be evenly distributed across our communities, nation, and globe, and old-school journalism will become unnecessary. But until then, if old-school journalism were to vanish whole aspects of our political and economic life would go dark, and all hope of democracy would go dark with it.

Old-school journalism certainly has its failings. Editors and other mediators inevitably have biases, and some will always be intellectually or otherwise corrupt. To my mind the OSS2 approach is no less flawless, but its main flaw is wildly unequal distribution ensured by the inherent inequalities of our society and global society. That said, OSS2 is a huge and growing gift to democracy and thus to the world. The stronger it gets the more it corrects the weaknesses of old-school journalism. As Doc wrote in that post that’s so generous to the old school, “we need AND logic, not OR.” Hooray for all of us. We be synergistic. The universe is not inherently binary.

And I appreciate your citation of Bro. Surowiecki, whose very independent mind I admire and from whom I have learned a lot. His thinking on the failure of crowd intelligence start with crowds that are too homogenous. I suspect that this applies to people who groove on the seductive mantra that information wants to be free, and who think that OSS2 makes old-school journalism obsolete or soon will. I know of no one who shares this mindset who does not have the previously enumerated skills, motivation, and easy and continuous broadband access. As a corrective: Remember, 80 percent of Americans work for hourly wages. People who punch time clocks and work at retail, or run machines, or drive trucks, or build things on construction sites, many of whom work more than one job, have no chance of digesting RSS feeds from their favorite bloggers all day as they sit at their desks, and very few will be reading them on their Treos.

I don’t mean this as ungenerous, but I sense a shared belief among information-wants-to-be-free folks that in time all people will be like them, or at least want to be like them. It’s a universal human trait to think the world is composed of people like us and the folks we deal with routinely, but the truth is that people ain’t all gonna be blogger/jazzers unless that eschatological moment comes along. I know of no economist or demographer who expects the percentage of hourly-wage workers, or the nature of their work, to change much in the foreseeable future. Further, there’s for sure not going to be any sudden change among the global poverty population, or in the adherence to secrecy of the corporate elites whose power directs the global economy and the government in Washington. So OSS2’s reach is limited by the number of folks we can realistically expect to have the skills that its jazz requires.

Here endeth the comment for the day.

As much as a pain as the ORGware delay must be to you, as a reader of your blog, I find it a blessing that you have more time to post these days. I’ll savor it while I can.

It was a blast to see you. We have lots more conversation ahead of us, and I look forward to it.


P.S. Please let me know if there’s a way for me to shape what I’ve written here as a comment; if not, and you’re so moved, feel free to put it, or parts of it up yourself however you wish.

The View from the Frontier

So spaketh Thomas. The issue we’re grappling with is how fast and skillfully might the next several waves of Web-struck newbies embrace and extend the power of connectedness to unite the people who most need its leverage. As Archimedes might have said, “Give me a web that’s wide enough, and I’ll lift the world.”

Tom knows that we pioneers who went west first desperately need the next wave of settlers to show up and populate this wild country with real families and infrastructure and town marshalls and schoolmarms. Since they won’t put up with the wildness we’ve embraced, it’s our job to provide a safe haven among the cactus and sagebrush and Indians.

However, Tom and I diverge a little on whether the skills and values of the pioneers will be adopted by the subsequent settlers. When we talked today, I suggested that, his Bridgeport example notwithstanding, the next wave of settlers may respond to the web’s delights just as we have: that we’re not really so special, simply early. Although we were quick to adopt the Internet’s protocols and values, it doesn’t mean that those who show up next (and next and next) will be any less skilled in embracing these collaborative tools. Despite that possibility, it’s likely we should build easier tools for them.

Tom sent me a book a while back: The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn. Though most of us have heard of the Populist Movement that emerged in America after the Civil War (was it really so civil?), it’s Goodwyn’s remarkable insight to describe it in a book titled “The Populist Moment”, because it demonstrates that movements are dependent on unique moments in time. Tom is convinced that America is in such a moment today. As a journalist, he is committed to serving the people who may not have a voice yet but who will certainly find theirs, moments from now, as reckoned by Internet time. Roughly speaking, his audience is hourly workers.

But actually, he yearns to rescue all of us. It’s a good thing, ’cause we sure need it.

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