Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Daily Us

Perhaps Nicholas Kristof (whom I do admire) hasn't been keeping up with his John Dewey.

In today's New York Times, he writes:

When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

He worries about this because "we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices" and implies that the situation is new to the Web--conveniently forgetting that New York City, a century ago, had more than a dozen major newspapers (not to mention all of the smaller ones, the newsletters, the magazines, the flyers) and that readers were feeling exactly the same then, and acting exactly the same.

Before the explosion of news possibilities on the Internet, it is true, the choices among sources of news and opinion were dwindling, the remaining ones falling under a "collective wisdom" that excluded most opinions. The "gatekeepers" also served as shepherds, keeping media sheep in their pastures and charging the rest of us to view them there.

Yet it does remain true that most of us (and I include myself as much as Kristof does himself) stick primarily to sources we fee we can trust--that is, sources that share our prejudices.

The thing to do, however, is not to blame this on new-media possibilities. The problem doesn't arise there, but from a population that has not challenged itself to learn and to communicate (which means being more than the object of someone else's desire to communicate).

And that brings us back to Dewey, who writes

Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge--a common understanding -- like-mindedness as the sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another, like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions -- like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

There is actually a point to going to where the like-minded are, as long as the like-minded aren't walling others out or blocking the windows to the outside. There's a point to exploring and understanding one's own beliefs instead of pretending to be a tabula rasa waiting to be written on. The end result of Kristof's contention that we go read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal if we don't want to be served only by The Daily Me is confusion and cacaphony. It would mean that I should continually read David Horowitz, the anti-Darwinists, the writings from Focus on the Family, Red State, and any and everything else I have already determined are based on faulty logic and poor thinking.

Sure, there's a point to looking at the opposition, and in learning from it. And, sometimes, even in being convinced by it. But what Kristof is advocating is a return to the news-media of objectivity, something that never did exist (except in its proponents' minds) and never will.

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