Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, October 10, 2005

Reading Material

Time to give thanks to the internet, which provides lots of good reading material, no matter what your interest is.

For example, via Atrios, a fascinating speech by Al Gore on the evolution of the media in the United States,
"It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

The speech pulls together a lot of seemingly common sense propositions into a pretty powerful critique of the state of the media in the United States (and we're not so different here in Canada). Gore's solution seems to be to try and work within the medium of television to try and create a TV station which can facilitate a genuine conversation. Personally, I think he needs to re-read Marshall McLuhan and accept that TV is what it is - a medium suitable for entertainment only and accept that the intentions behind the station's owners, or even the content itself, matter little. Still, even if I disagree with his solution, the diagnosis of the problem is eloquent and worth reading in full.


Pogge and friends have been trying to raise awareness of the pending and growing threat from Avian flu. Accordingly, last week was 'Pandemic Flu Awareness Week' ('better late than never' is my motto) and the virus itself co-operated with awareness efforts by spreading to Europe for the first time. If, like me, you know little about Avian Flu or why people are [more] concerned [than before], check out this Flu Wiki which has more information.


I probably pay more attention to politics than the average person, but one thing I've never done is vote in a municipal election. Part of that is having moved over 20 times in the last 10 years, but part of it is also just laziness and lack of interest/awareness in what's going on at the municipal level. Apparently, Vancouver is planning to hold a municipal election, and Ainge does us the favour of recapping the Green Party's platform here.


Ian's had lots of interesting posts on economics recently at Tilting at Windmills. Recent favourites include this one on the challenges high oil prices present to the Canadian economy, and this one on corporations.

Ian also links to an interesting chart on equalization at Bouquets of Gray.

Speaking of equalization, Andrew Spicer did his own analysis not too long ago. Must be something in the air. While I'm linking to Andrew Spicer, he in turn linked to a couple of interesting blogs a little further back, this one by Rebel Sell co-author Andrew Potter, and this one, which talks about lots of interesting topics, and where I found this nice chart of federal government spending.

That should keep you busy for a while...


  • Sorry - I guess I missed that period in history when widespread dissemination of printed material made the written word a true "two-way conversation." Or perhaps, it was when word of mouth was the most advanced form of mass communication - you know, the age of rumour. There has not been a communications technology that has not favoured the rich, the already powerful, or the well-connected, or that has not served to present the 'one-way' communication of that group's ideas to the general public. Al Gore is ticked not because there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television, but because there is - but the ideas he likes are increasingly being discarded (obligatory acknowledgement - yes, it is primarily a medium of entertainment, and is ill-suited for serious discussion).

    Perhaps Herr Habermas could point out the time in German history when "the public sphere" wasn't feudal: was it during the depression; the Weimar Republic; the reign of the Kaiser; or prior to Bismarck's unification? In which of these times did the peasantry have access to mass communications technologies? How many backyard printing presses were used to generate the opposing current of the "two-way conversation?"

    If the marketplace for ideas is telling you that you are a dried up schmuck with nothing interesting to say, that does not mean that the marketplace is wrong, that it doesn't work properly, or that it doesn't exist. Maybe it just means that, well, you're a dried up old schmuck.

    By Blogger deaner, at 3:49 PM  

  • I don't know Dean, I think you're letting your opinion of Gore colour your reaction.

    If you consider the history of the Toronto Star, it was founded by locked out workers during a labour dispute (hardly rich, powerful or super well connected, although better than the average person for sure). It's hard to imagine something similar happening now, even with al the modern video technology. Certainly, in the the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's it would have been pretty much impossible for locked out TV workers (for example) to start their own TV station.

    Things have changed, and the era of print *was* different in lots of ways. I think Gore underestimates the impact of the internet and is wrong to bet on TV as the way forward, but I think his history of the age of print vs. the subsequent era of TV is fairly accurate.

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:42 PM  

  • Declan - I was not aware of that history of "the Star" - but even at that, it is one counterexample. I would contend that this did not represent a "two-way communication," or conversation - it just established a new one-way communication channel, albeit with different content and bias. I agree with Gore that TV is a one-way "conversation" - I just think he is sniffing glue if he imagines that in this it is any different than newspapers (did William Randolph Hearst speak for your interest, Declan? No, me neither - same for the Siftons, the Southams, and Beaverbrook, too) or Pathe newsreels, or the telegraph.

    I may be letting my opinion of Gore colour my view of his remarks, but when he spins the image of [t]he feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable he is letting his desire to make his point distort his view of history. Feudalism (which itself is a pretty fuzzy concept) was well in decline before the invention of the printing press. Feudalism failed not because people became more well-read (which would be the contribution of the printing press), but because the economy evolved into a money-exchange economy instead of a barter economy and feudal lords were supplanted by Kings end Emperors as the tactics (and costs) of waging war grew.

    I agree that Gore underestimates the influence (and potential) of the internet - perhaps he is terrified of using the word, afraid that he will be (unfairly) slagged for having claimed to "invent" it. This may be due to embarrassment, but I put it down to the fact that the most dynamic "marketplace of ideas" is at best lukewarm to Al Gore's favourite notions, and he does not wish to draw too much attention to this uncomfortable fact.



    By Blogger deaner, at 10:16 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home