Thursday, April 5, 2012

Glenn Reynolds and Walter Russell Mead

In Tuesday afternoon, I had the good fortune to attend a forum about blogging at the Baker Center down on the UT campus.  Glenn Reynolds of and Walter Russell Mead of gave their thoughts.  Unfortunately, it lasted but an hour.  As they spoke and responded to questions (about both blogging and its impacts), I found that more and more interesting questions arose (well, at least they were interesting to me).  There was almost a chain reaction feeling -- every question one of them answered seemed to open up more areas where one would love to know their thoughts.  Sadly, I didn't get a chance to ask many of them.  I suspect that a chance to be part of a long conversation with them over the course of an evening would resemble the best parts of one of James Burke's old "Connections" episodes.  They are obviously both bright people who have spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the interplay of many global issues.  It would appear that much of that thinking has been outside the box.

They were joined by UT prof Chad Black, who spoke little other than to ask a couple of questions.  Glenn began by explaining how he got started, the impact of 9/11, and the role of blogging as part of his duties as a law professor.  Mead discussed how the informality of blogging resembles a lot of writing from an earlier time citing The Spectator, and essays such as the Federalist Papers (written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay and printed in newspapers to argue in support of adoption by the states of the proposed Constitution in the late 1780s).  [btw -- at the close, I suggested that Ben Franklin might be viewed as an early blogger.  Both readily agreed and Mead said that much of the writing in almanacs could be seen as 'blogging'.]

Mead explained that the rise of publishing houses in the 19th century saw the rise of curators of content.  The writer was no longer self-published, but subject to the decisions of layers of editors and publishers.  An establishment, less democratic and more restrictive, arose.  It's easy to see why he connects blogging to the earlier time when writers went directly to the public with their work.  Modern blogging is breaking down the establishment barriers to entry that have existed so long in publishing and journalism.

He said that he thinks a lot of the blogging he sees often reflects more interesting thinking and writing.  He liked it because of the feedback that he gets in the comments.  At that point, I think it was Glenn who described blogging as more like a conversation while publishing a magazine or journal article was more like giving a lecture.  Mead agreed.

The conversation moved into a discussion of how blogging was part of a larger influence that was breaking down the hierarchical structure, not just in publishing and journalism, but throughout society.  The technology was serving to revive the American democratic culture.  One aspect of the change was the reduction in our tendency to defer to experts.  A discussion ensued of how we relied on authority figures in decades past. They made note of Rathergate, factcheckers in pajamas, etc.  Later on, Glenn told us that in one of his classes they watch the movie "Absence of Malice" and remarked how strange it is today to see how the victim of a newspaper smear had so little recourse such a short time ago.  Today, he'd be blogging his side of the story and exposing the paper's inaccuracies.

Once questions began, the topic bounced around.  Their basic theme is that the internet revolution of which blogging is just a small part, is fundamentally changing a lot more than just publishing and journalism.  Bubbles are deflating all over -- e.g. colleges and universities are another institution where costs are inflated, the consumer fails to see the value, and the economic foundation of the institution is unsustainable.  Many governments are seeing their control of information circumvented.  All over, levels of hierarchy are being disrupted.  Barriers to entry are collapsing.  Traditional comfort zones of the establishment are under attack. 

I do want to highlight their response to one question.  Someone expressed concern about bloggers promoting bad information and mentioned the Trayvon Martin case.  I wish the professors had pointed out that a great deal of the false information in that case was put out there be establishment news media.  But they did say that people are people, errors will always be a part of the equation.  Glenn related Ted Sturgeon's Law.  When asked why he wrote science fiction since 90% of science fiction is crap, Sturgeon replied, "90% of everything is crap!"

Fortunately for those of us who attended, this event wasn't part of the 90%.

After it ended, I was one of the group that inevitably hangs around hoping to get a word.  Glenn had to return to the law school to teach a class, but professor Mead was kind enough to entertain a number of questions from students with remarkable good humor until it was time to move on to the next stop of his visit to the UT campus.


  1. Was the forum recorded? I'd like to watch it.

  2. 90% of everything is crap. I think this is overly optimistic.

  3. 'Absence of Malice' - I've used it too in my classes, a superb movie about the cynicism & power of the MSM.

    Good quote - "It's not accurate, but it's true."

    The ending with Wilford Brimley, a sort of deus ex machina, sums it up nicely.