You Are An Imbicile And I Am A Fool

If you believe the words of Joseph Rago writing at The Wall Street Journal I am a fool and you, the reader, are an imbicile. He describes The Blog Mob as “written by fools to be read by imbeciles.”

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.

Views on how significant we are differs with different bloggers. At times I have been critical of the importance some such as Kos have placed on the “net roots,” such as when I did not believe that Dean had wrapped up the nomination in 2004 and that Kerry was out of the race. Of course the apparently more brilliant journalists in the mainstream media were also fooled on that.

More success is met in purveying opinion and comment. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren’t much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

Having a day job which keeps me pretty busy, I certainly don’t pretend to be able to compete with professional journalists in obtaining the news, but bloggers do vary in the quality of comment provided. Many of us were commented on the dangers of going into Iraq long before professional commentators such as Thomas Friedman realized the folly of their initial opinions. As a physician I had insights which professional journalists lacked and was commenting on how Bush’s Medicare D Program was a financial windfall for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries long before commentators and reporters in the mainstream media discovered this.

The way we write affects both style and substance. The loquacious formulations of late Henry James, for instance, owe in part to his arthritis, which made longhand impossible, and instead he dictated his writing to a secretary. In this aspect, journalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse. That is, the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope–though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog’s being is: Here’s my opinion, right now.

The right now is partially a function of technology, which makes instantaneity possible, and also a function of a culture that valorizes the up-to-the-minute above all else. But there is no inherent virtue to instantaneity. Traditional daily reporting–the news–already rushes ahead at a pretty good clip, breakneck even, and suffers for it. On the Internet all this is accelerated.

The blogs must be timely if they are to influence politics. This element–here’s my opinion–is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought–instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior.

It is true that posting an opinion without taking the time to get all the facts has dangers, but in writing this section I wonder if Rago has been following the changes in the mainstream media. The perils of instant journalism have been far more apparent in the twenty-four hour news coverage where being first is so important. Initial news reports frequently need to be corrected, such as the early election calls on Florida in 2000. While many blog posts are immediate reactions to the news, a lot of others deal with subjects we have been writing about for months or years with a new story simply providing a little further insight.

This cross-referential and interactive arrangement, in theory, should allow for some resolution to divisive issues, with the market sorting out the vagaries of individual analysis. Not in practice. The Internet is very good at connecting and isolating people who are in agreement, not so good at engaging those who aren’t. The petty interpolitical feuding mainly points out that someone is a liar or an idiot or both.

There is some truth to this. Even when conservative and liberal blogs debate back and forth there is rarely real communication. Again, this is a problem in the blogosphere but it also reflects the same attitudes seen in the talking heads who provide commentary profesisionally. When was the last time anyone ever saw Rush Limbaugh and a liberal commentator communicate and reach common ground?

Because political blogs are predictable, they are excruciatingly boring. More acutely, they promote intellectual disingenuousness, with every constituency hostage to its assumptions and the party line. Thus the right-leaning blogs exhaustively pursue second-order distractions–John Kerry always providing useful material–while leaving underexamined more fundamental issues, say, Iraq. Conservatives have long taken it as self-evident that the press unfavorably distorts the war, which may be the case; but today that country is a vastation, and the unified field theory of media bias has not been altered one jot.

Leftward fatuities too are easily found: The fatuity matters more than the politics. If the blogs have enthusiastically endorsed Joseph Conrad’s judgment of newspapering–“written by fools to be read by imbeciles”–they have also demonstrated a remarkable ecumenicalism in filling out that same role themselves.

This is a continuation of the last argument, which reflects the mainstream media as much as this is a problem in the blogosphere. At least the blogosphere has more variety than the mainstream media, with some of us varying more than others from the usual party line in the positions we take. There are conservative blogs that have opposed Bush and the war. Here at Liberal Values I have taken a consistently liberal view on social issues but have also supported libertarian and fiscally conservative positions at times.

Naturally an editorial such as this is bound to receive considerable comment in the blogosphere. Here’s a sampling of the comments:

QandO, Ace of Spades HQ, Booman Tribune, MyDD, Riehl World View, Roger L. Simon, Joe’s Dartblog,, Ed, Decision ’08, Shakespeare’s Sister, EU Referendum, Gun Toting Liberal ™, PoliBlog (TM), Fraters Libertas, protein wisdom, Polimom Says, The Moderate Voice, Beltway Blogroll, Daily Pundit, Balloon Juice, Seeing the Forest, snapped shot, BizzyBlog, Confederate Yankee, Blue Crab Boulevard, THE ASTUTE BLOGGERS, alicublog, Media Blog

The Futility of Abstinence Based Education

Further evidence has been released which questions the value of abstinence education, which I have questioned in the past. AP reports on a study from Public Health Reports:

More than nine out of 10 Americans, men and women alike, have had premarital sex, according to a new study. The high rates extend even to women born in the 1940s, challenging perceptions that people were more chaste in the past.

“This is reality-check research,” said the study’s author, Lawrence Finer. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades.”

Since abstinence based education appears to be a hopeless cause, they recommend other forms of education:

“The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12- to 29-year-olds,” Finer said.

Under the Bush administration, such programs have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

“It would be more effective,” Finer said, “to provide young people with the skills and information they need to be safe once they become sexually active — which nearly everyone eventually will.”

Robot Rights

Will the next hot political controversy be over robot marriage? The Financial Times reports on a study reviewing rights for conscious robots:

The next time you beat your keyboard in frustration, think of a day when it may be able to sue you for assault. Within 50 years we might even find ourselves standing next to the next generation of vacuum cleaners in the voting booth.

Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Right Wing News argues that “machines should never have ‘rights.'” This is because “They’re not born, they have no souls, and if they seem to possess human traits, it’s only because that’s how they’ve been programmed.” This gets to the heart of what consciousness is, and while Right Wing News can use the religious idea of a soul to answer, I do not believe this is a question which can be answered right now.

This will not really be a concern unless we develop machines with consciousness–and I mean truly conscious and not cleverly programmed machines which appear to be conscious. If a robot/android which is conscious like Star Trek’s Mr. Data could really be developed in the future I see no question that such beings deserve rights. Of course the possibility that a machine could ever be conscious such as Data has not yet been established.

A simplistic answer such as that robots have no soles leads to strange results. On the one hand such a mind set would never provide rights to Data as, no matter how clearly he is conscious, it could never be said that he was born and has no sole. In contrast we see the religious right granting rights to embryos consisting of a small number of cells, and lacking a central nervous system which prevents them from approving of embryonic stem cell research.