GLENN REYNOLDS IS RIGHT

I couldn’t help agreeing with Glenn Reynolds’ response to my review of his An Army of Davids:

As for Keen's complaint that I fail to address the "crucial" question of "whether or not man is inherently good" -- well, that question could support a book, or a thousand books, on its own. And has.

Reynolds is right to say that this question could support a thousand books. These are the great texts that represent the foundations of our western civilization: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Machiavelli’s Discourses, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Madison & Hamilton’s Federalist Papers.

Note that uber-blogger Reynolds doesn’t mention blogs. He never says that the question of whether or man is good could support one blog, a thousand blogs or, for that matter, a billion blogs. And he’s right. Blogs can’t investigate complex moral issues because they are, by definition, shallow and transient. They are designed to be written and read instantly. Thus Instapundit’s instantaneous news and information service on his massively popular blog. Don’t think, just write; don’t think, just read.

Some weeks ago, I interviewed Dan Gillmor for my afterTV podcast show. Gillmore is the author of We the Media, a utopian vision of a flattened media worldL48324781_longtailed_macaques_preening . When I asked Gillmor for an example of how blogs are enriching our knowledge of the world, he told me about the communities of Prius owning people that read each others’ blogs so that they could understand their cars better.

Yes, Instapundit Glenn Reynolds is right. The question of the goodness of man is not a subject for a blog. Unless, of course, it is the collective goodness of Prius owners wanting to bathe in each others virtue.

Give a million monkeys a typewriter, it has been said, and you get a decent novel in return. Give a billion humans access to electronic diaries, and all you get as a return on your investment is ephemera. Spontaneous thoughts. Opinion. Communities of Prius owners. Trash.

So here’s my guarantee about the future: Just as Thomas Friedman promised us that country’s with MacDonalds franchises will never go to war with one another, so I will guarantee that no blogger will ever provide lasting wisdom to later generations. That’s a promise. And a warning.

TECHNOLOGY AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Army_frontcoversmall_4The two things that struck me most about Glenn Reynolds’ An Army of Davids are the childish quality of his arguments and the poverty of his prose. Just as one doesn’t need to be Aristotle to grasp the epistemological weakness of Reynolds’ intellectual reasoning (see my review in The Weekly Standard), so one doesn’t need to be George Orwell to appreciate the amateur quality of his writing style.

Reynolds writes like a typical blogger. Which is to say that he uses -- or rather abuses -- the English language shamelessly. Here, for example, is Reynolds on what it is to be human: “Being human is hard, and people have wanted to be better for well, as long has there have been people.”

Being human is hard….. The philosophy here is Nietzsche-For-Idiots. But the prose is even worse. These are the words of someone who writes before he thinks. These words are pretentious. And they are mostly meaningless.

Or here is Reynolds bringing his informal blogging language to the moral imperative for humans to colonize Mars: “Like a chick that has grown too big for its egg, we must emerge or die. I prefer the former.”

Did Reynolds think before writing this linguistic gibberish? Or do these metaphors just “emerge” from him after they have grown “too big” for his brain?

In his essay, “Politics and the English language,” George Orwell wrote: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell wrote this in 1946, more than half a century before Reynolds’ slovenly language and foolish thoughts were cobbled together into An Army of Davids. Orwell’s remarks are prescient. Foolish thoughts and slovenly language have always been bound up with each other. The Internet merely provides a convenient way for amateur writers to show them both off to the world.

In "Politics and the English Language", Orwell lists four categories of grammatical incorrectness.

1. Dying Metaphors
2. Operators or Verbal False Limbs
3. Pretentious Diction
4. Meaningless Words

Reynolds is a master in all four Orwellian categories. But he excels, truly excels, in meaningless words. Perhaps this is because he is a law professor. Or perhaps it is because he has spent too much time talking with other Olympic champions of meaningless words, like Ray “Singularity” Kurweil, who is heavily quoted in An Army of Davids.

In his section on meaningless words in “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.”

Today’s meaningless equivalent of the word Fascism is the word Luddite. In a section entitled “We are all Supermen Now”, Reynolds introduces a word he calls “transhumanism.” – a word so devoid of meaning that it might have been coined by  another of George Orwell’s great legacies -- his Ministry of Truth from Ninety Eighty-Four.

Reynolds tells us that the pro-transhumanist community expects to encounter considerable opposition from “Luddites” like Bill McKibben and Francis Fukuyama. In Reynolds’ corrupt lexicon, anyone who doesn’t agree with his extremist views about technology is a Luddite. Since nobody in their right mind could agree with Reynolds’ messianic faith in the “transhumanist” qualities of technology, that makes any sane person into a Luddite.

So this is where Reynolds and Kurweil and their techno-utopianism has led us. Either we are pro-transhumanists or we are Luddites. Such are the consequences of foolish thoughts and slovenly language. Such is the impact of contemporary technology utopianism upon the English language.

ORIGINAL SINNERS

Who is the greatest of the Great Seducers?

1. Karl Marx
2. Giacomo Casanova
3. Plato
4. Mick Jagger
5. All of the above rolled up into a single 18th century seducer

The answer is 5. If you role up Marx, Casanova, Plato and Jagger into one 18th century writer and womanizer and philosopher and (con)artist you get the greatest of the Great Seducers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) of Geneva, the author of Discourses on the Arts and Sciences (1750), Les Confessions (1770), The Social Contract (1762)  and, most importantly, Emile (1762)

Rousseau

Rousseau came up with the most seductive sentence in the whole dirty history of Western utopian thought. It occurs at the beginning of his political treatise, The Social Contract:

MAN WAS BORN FREE BUT EVERYWHERE HE IS IN CHAINS

In ten words, Jean-Jacques Rousseau bore the modern idea of childhood. Till then, children were considered little adults, miniature sinners, junior versions of their corrupt elders. But with Rousseau’s seductive ten words, childhood and children acquired the halo of innocence. Thus the centrality of Emile, Rousseau’s enormously influential “educational” treatise, on how to maintain the inner-innocence in the adolescent.

Rousseau’s idea is very simple. Man was born good and society corrupts him. Rousseau turned the Aristotelian veneration of experience and old-age on its ancient head. Human nature is good and society bad. Original sin was replaced with original virtue. Wisdom and goodness was now located in the child or the primitive human, the so-called “noble savage.”

Rousseau-for-idiots: Adults don’t get it; kids do.

Sounds familiar? Rousseau’s cult of the innocent child climaxed for the first time in the countercultural explosion of the Sixties when a generation of children all-too-innocently announced their intention to remake the world in their virtuous image. Today, this ideal of the innocence, the embedded virtue, the original purity of the child has returned wrapped in the cloak of digital idealism. Let’s tag it “Climax 2.0” in honor of those Silicon Valley teleologists who can only think in zeros and ones.

I thought of Rousseau today while reading an ABC news piece by Michael S. Malone entitled “The Leet Guide for Noobs and Nubs”. Implicit in Malone’s argument is that the  online words and symbols of teenagers, words like "leet" and "noob" and "nub" invented by kids to communicate with other kids, represents a linguistic purity that eludes adults. Online kids know how to talk to one another. The adolescent language of instant-messaging and texting has become the new thing-in-itself.

This seductive ideal of youth  is even more explicit in the work now done by Danah Boyd, a Web 2.0 utopian, by about the morality of the My Space generation. Boyd describes her work as follows:

“I study emergent social technologies that incorporate social networks, identity representation, sharing and performance (Friendster, blogging, IM...). I focus heavily on youth culture.”

In her sociological research, Boyd digitalizes Rousseau’s innocent child:

"Youth are not creating digital publics to scare parents - they are doing so because they need youth space, a place to gather and see and be seen by peers. Publics are critical to the coming-of-age narrative because they provide the framework for building cultural knowledge. Restricting youth to controlled spaces typically results in rebellion and the destruction of trust. Of course, for a parent, letting go and allowing youth to navigate risks is terrifying. Unfortunately, it's necessary for youth to mature."

Boyd-for-idiots: Analog parents don’t get it; digital kids do.

But what happens, however, if this “coming of age narrative” (ie: Climax 2.0) on an online youth community like My Space involves teenage pornography and voyeurism. What happens when, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the kids are into spanking and swinging and where Playboy Enterprises Inc. has launched a casting call for a "Girls of MySpace" nude pictorial.

Perhaps, then, the adolescent members of the My Space community are not quite as innocent as we are led to believe by the digital utopians of Silicon Valley. Perhaps we should revert to the pre Rousseau vision of the child as the flawed little adult, the original sinner. Then the crude behaviour of today’s online children becomes more troubling. Perhaps, then, we should be spanking our kids, rather than allowing them to spank each other.

SORTA NICK CARROWAYISM

250pxfrancis_scott_fitzgerald_1937_june_I just got a hilarious note from Chris Coulter in reaction to the Weekly Standard piece that is definitely worth (re)broadcasting:

Wow, great piece...
Odd, in that the San Fran anti-utopians, which are mainly centered around Andrew Orlowski and 'The Castle' hive zone -- I guess I just must have missed you, if in that circle. And another one of those Ex-Patty Redcoats to boot; West Coast Brit Invasion, everywhere I turn it's all these eternal Lobsterbacks. ;)
Irony abounds, eh?
Which might be where I think you are coming from, cashed-out enough,to jab, but yet not hard enough to get disinvited from the parties. Sorta Nick Carrisms, as he plays nice to get Speaker Circuit gigs and sucks up to Dave Winer and other Ego-Fed Utopians. Or Nick Dentonisms,snarky enough to be ribbing, but cotton-candy enough to be toast of town. And then Mercury News and offshot Gillmorisms,going cheerleading. With Levy, Mossberg, Markoff writing one-off Mediabistroistic high-sugar suck-up feature-pieces, being invited  to all the swanky billionaire parties. And JCD saying blogging is a waste of time, and then doing one and proving it.
Hence...
No one is covering the Valley as it SHOULD be covered, as one big cesspool of FRAUD and  VAPORWARE. No one.Well rant over. Hi. ;)

Brilliant. I couldn't have described myself better. I've only got one thing to add. I'm not sorta Nick Carrism -- although I am a big fan of Nick Carr's work. Instead, I'm sorta Nick Carrowayism. It was Nick Carroway, of course, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel Great Gatsby, simple innocent Nick, the novel's narrative voice, who covered the Twenties and West Egg as it SHOULD be covered.

And Silicon Valley is just another West Egg eighty years on. And  I'm that simple innocent Nick Carroway here to whip up an omelette out of all the fraud and the vaporware.

A SHORT HISTORY OF LUCK

Blood_on_the_tracks Here in Silicon Valley, it would be nice to know why some people are lucky and some aren't. A convincing explanation would require an author closely acquainted with fortune. It would need familiarity both with second chancers such as Steve Jobs and with rookies like Sergei Brin and Larry Page, those lucky boys at Google, who have accumulated a more substantial fortune over the last five years than the English monarchy has collected in a millenium.

The source of luck, both good and bad, has always intrigued people. Bob Dylan is good on luck. Think of his “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” from Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan's own creative second chance:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

Like a crooked pack of cards, Silicon Valley is indeed stacked with guys standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts. The question is whether the festival is all over or just beginning. The question is whether we are all planning for a fall.

One of the earliest published writer on luck was the 16th century Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote extensively on the cause of good fortune. In his short book, The Prince (written in 1514, but published posthumously in 1532), an essay of advice to his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli explains that fortune favors the bold thus advising his Prince, not without controversy, to always act decisively:

Fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.

In 1958, almost 500 years after Machiavelli wrote his Prince, Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo, his motion picture about bad luck.  He took the idea from a 1956 French novel called The Living and the Dead by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s a classic Hitchcock nightmare. An ordinary, innocent man falls into spiral of deceit, suicide and murder. There is no reason for this, no metaphysical justification. It’s just bad luck in a world without meaning. A cruel twist of fate.

For Scottie Ferguson, the innocent central character of Vertigo, (mis)fortune was not one woman, but two – blonde Madeleine and the dark haired Judy. Vertigo is a movie within a movie, the first featuring Scottie’s relationship with Madeleine, the second with Judy.  Scottie’s great luck, his second chance comes at the end of the second act, after he has dressed Judy up to look like Madeleine and then realized that they are, in fact, the same woman, and that, in his misfortune, he has been the victim of a murderous confidence trick.

Recognizing this truth makes Scottie bold. Maybe his luck will change. Perhaps fortune is, indeed, a woman. Following his revelation, he drives Judy from San Franscisco, down the peninsula, south of the then sleepy town of San Jose, to the little Spanish colonial mission of San Juan Bautista.  Scottie drags Judy to the scene of the original con – across the mission’s green, through the church door and into a narrow spiral of steps leading up the tower. He seizes her hand. She struggles.  Their claustrophobic fight is more pathetic than heroic since, in reality, they are equally unlucky victims of the same crime. And then Scottie fires his words, amongst the most resonant ever written about luck:

One doesn’t often get a second chance, I want to stop being haunted. You are my second chance, Judy. You are my second chance.

The words were probably written by Samuel Taylor, the movie’s screenwriter, but Hitchcock might have even written them himself, given the close collaborative relationship he had with Taylor. Just as Hitchcock’s movies included his own cameo appearances, they also contained fragments of autobiography. For Hitchcock, California, and Hollywood in particular, represented a lucky second act. As a promising young movie director, Hitchcock came to America in March 1939 on the invitation of David O. Selznick, the movie mogul most famous for producing Gone with the Wind (1940).  Like so many lucky immigrants (for example, Karl Rossman in Franz Kafka's Amerika),  Hitchcock made his American entrance on March 6th 1939 through New York Harbor, sailing past lady luck herself, the Statue of Liberty, on board the Queen Mary before taking the train westwards, out to California.

Selznick had signed Hitchcock to make Rebecca (1940) and seven other films – and he went on to direct thirty two movies as an increasingly iconic Hollywood figure. But there was probably nothing lucky about Hitchcock’s ascent to greatness. He could have just as easily -- like the unlucky Orson Welles -- fallen out of favor with the studio chiefs and out of fashion with the viewing public. But as a talented pioneer of a new type of thriller movie as well as a familiar face on the revolutionary medium of television, Hitchcock made the most of his second chance in California. He stayed until his death in 1980, establishing his home in the Los Altos Hills (then a rural retreat, now a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb) and making many of his movies on location in the Bay Area.

One of those locations was the mission town of San Juan Bautista, fifty miles south of Los Altos and the scene of Scottie Ferguson’s second chance in Vertigo.  San Juan Bautista, originally settled by the Spanish in 1797, is also connected to one of the luckiest second acts in American history. In 1846, about 100 years before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in California, the American population of the state was no more than 500 people. Gold wouldn’t be discovered by James Marshall at Sutters Fort until January 1848, thus unleashing the State’s first great wave of good luck hunters. In 1846, a group of 87 pioneers, led by an Illinois farmer by the name of George Donner, set out for California. Included in the party were Patrick and Margaret Breen, recent immigrants from Canada and their seven children. In the winter of 1846-47, the Donner Party, as it became known, got trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few miles north of the modern town of Truckee, not far from the current route of the Interstate 80 highway. The nightmare of the Donner Party’s ordeal is worse than anything even Hitchcock could have dreamt up. Tortured by starvation and cold, the living were forced to eat the dead in order to survive the brutal winter. What bad luck! Of the original pioneers, only forty five souls would have the good fortune to experience their second acts in California.

All nine Breens survived. The senior Breen, Patrick, not only came down from the pass, but he transformed his ordeal into media. His diary, from which historians have depended for their accounts of the tragic journey, is now the property of the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.  Patrick’s eldest son, John also made much of his lucky second chance. Having arrived in California, he settled in San Juan Bautista and, in 1848, went to the gold fields, returning in March 1849 with $12,000 in gold. He invested the money in the biggest house and stables on the square in San Juan Bautista and in buying 400 acres of land in the San Juan Valley. John Breen’s stables are easy to see today – Hitchcock filmed them in Madeleine’s final scene in Vertigo, before her fake suicide.

Since 1846, California has become American’s second chance, the stage of generation after generation of entrepreneur, eager to make their fortune. Many of these pioneers, like Hitchcock, John Breen and the Silicon Valley crowd, got lucky. But not all these second acts have ended as happily. Take another Scott as an example – this one a real person rather than a movie character. Arriving in California as the acclaimed author of a number of novels including The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood to write screenplays. But he never took to the movies and the movie business never took to him. He was hired, then quickly fired, by the mogul David O. Selznick, to write the screenplay for Gone With The Wind. By the late Thirties, Fitzgerald was washed up, a has-been, a bad luck Hollywood failure and a drunk. In 1940, the same year that Selznick gave Hitchcock his first chance in Hollywood, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. In addition to a wife and daughter, he left an unfinished Hollywood novel called The Last Tycoon based on the life of the mogul Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald also left us with some much quoted autobiographical sentence on bad luck:

"There are no second acts in American lives."

Even after death, Fitzgerald can’t quite shake off the great seduction of California. We look back to Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and that whole West Egg scene to make historical sense of Silicon Valley. It has become common-place now to juxtapose the Twenties and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 with the Nineties and the Silicon Valley crash of April 2000. It doesn't take a F. Scott Fitzgerald to see that both decades were characterized by excessive optimism, an irrationally exuberant bull market and an evangelical faith in future prosperity. The Twenties invented the new media of radio and the movies; the Nineties invented the new media of Internet and cellphones. What good luck; what ill fortune.

One can’t but wonder what sort of history of luck an outsider-on-the-inside like Fitzgerald would have written, had he had the (mis)fortune today of doing his second act in Silicon Valley, next to Steve and Larry and Sergei, amidst the vertiginous hype of Web 2.0, the trumpeted second coming of the digital media revolution. But this time the bad luck is ours. Today, there is neither a Scott F. Fitzgerald, nor an Alfred Hitchcock, a Bob Dylan or a Niccolo Machiavelli to help out. The festival might, indeed, be over and the boys could all be planning for a fall, but we've got to work out the consequences of it all for ourselves. Today, those consequences remain unrecorded, unwritten and unfilmed. And here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the place that is reinventing the technology of media, we continue to wait with uncharacteristic patience to learn why some people are lucky and why some aren't.

AH ORWELL

OrwellGeorge Orwell is everywhere. And, as a consequence, he himself has become an Orwellian threat to himself.

Last month, I participated in Harvard University’s Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism. “Ah, Orwell”, the guy next to me whispered to himself, after I had asked Orville Schell, the Dean of UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, a question about the threat of a ubiquitous blogosphere. Then my neighbor nodded sagaciously, as if just his utterance of the word Orwell was a philosophical remark in-itself, an intelligent statement, a particularly valuable pearl of wisdom.

Ah, Orwell.

It’s not George Orwell who I’m against. But, rather, people who use the word Orwell in vain. His 1948 book about Big Brother has become a collective intellectual big brother. Orwell this, Orwell that and Orwell this-that-and-the-other. It’s hard to read anything about the future without stumbling on Orwell and his flat screened dystopia. But the problem is that few people are reading Orwell seriously anymore. He’s been canonized and his Nineteen Eighty-Four has been transformed into Saint 1984.

Amongst the worst culprits are the technology futurists.  I’ve been browsing Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002), a thinly argued book memorable only for its inane title. In his conclusion, Rheingold falls back thoughtlessly on Orwell, imagining the birth of a high-tech surveillance society in which everybody is watching everybody else. 

The problem is that the Howard Rheingolds of Silicon Valley have the future back-to-front. The likely dystopia is not the ubiquitous eye of pervasive computing, but rather the way in which technology is making everyone into authors. The future is not to be feared because of the threat to individual self expression, but rather because of the threat of too much self expression. Digital technology is making all of us into mini Big Brothers with our own blogs, podcast and videocast shows. The concern is not the death of individual rights, but rather the demise of an authoritative broadcast media and the rise of what Christine Rosen calls egocasting.

So let me desanctify Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four in the context of the digital revolution of blogs, podcasts and wikis. Orwell got it wrong. His dystopia is a place where nobody is an author except Big Brother. Thus Winston Smith’s great act of rebellion in Nineteen Eight-Four was his decision to pick up a rusty pen and write down his own thoughts:

"The thing that he was about to do was open a diary. This was not illegal, but if detected it was  reasonably certain that it would be punished by death… Winston fitted a nib into the penholder  and sucked it to get the grease off… He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a     second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act."

But 1984 is not longer 1984. Remember that iconic 1984 Apple commercial – directed by Ridley Scott and broadcast in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XVIII:

ON JANUARY 24th, APPLE COMPUTER WILL INTRODUCE THE MACINTOSH. AND YOU’LL SEE WHY 1984 WON’T BE LIKE 1984

Exactly. 1984 is indeed no longer like 1984. Digital technology is turning us all into Big Brothers. Instead of being an act of rebellion, Winston Smith’s act of self expression is increasingly becoming another sort of cultural dictatorship. My dystopian vision is a society of digital Winston Smiths, collectively marking the paper, pouring out their most profound thoughts into blogs, podcasts and wikis.

To the utopians of Silicon Valley, a “democratic” society of digital Winston Smiths is a dream; for me, it sounds Orwellian.

Ah Orwell.