Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"Now" vs. Last Year

Galley Friend M.C. has a post up about David Gelernter's lament about the internet and "nowness." It's very smart. Around the time of the Iranian election last year I wrote a long post (which I never published) about my dream to launch a magazine that was the anti-thesis of nowness, theoretically called Last Year. Here's the resurrected idea:


During the beginnings of the Iranian post-election uprising, someone posited that the Twitter/Blogo-sphere had finally succeeded in creating two distinctive species of news consumers: People who relied on Old Media, whose understanding of the world was shallow and lagged something like 48 hours behind reality and people who relied on the newest of New Media, whose perceptions of events were broad and immediate. The suggestion being that those relying on the Twiblosphere were much better informed and much more up to date, culiminating in a better grounding of the world around us.

Let's grant a couple things. First, let's grant that if you were plugged into the Twiblosphere last weekend, you knew (or thought you knew) that events in Iran had suddenly shifted and that the regime was imperiled by a mass backlash against what was taken to be a rigged election. (Or rather, an election more rigged than the rigging everyone had already assumed to be built into the affair.) By relying on hundreds, or thousands, of mostly anonymous, burst transmissions you were able to piece together a pixelated version of events in something like real time. You couldn't be sure that any given pixel was true, but the sea of them was able to tell you that something was happening.

Second, let's grant that if you were part of the great unwashed getting your news from the papers--or even skipping out on news during weekends altogether--you were absolutely behind the time curve in understanding what was happening in Iran. And when you did finally figure out what was going on, the perception you got was already outdated.

The obvious question is, does it matter? Practically speaking, unless you're part of a very small circle of people--DoD, State, the White House, a dissident group, someone with financial interests or family in the region--is there any real value to immediacy? I'd argue no. I doubt events in Iran would have been altered much if bloggers at the Atlantic hadn't learned about the uprising until last Tuesday.

But more importantly, is it possible that the immediacy of information diminishes our understanding of the world around us? It certainly seems possible. At nearly every level of the physical and intellectual worlds, speed creates uncertainty and mistakes. Time allows deliberation and judiciousness. This is true of everything from writing to quarterbacking. The faster you have to go, the more mistakes you make.

The Twiblosphere has its place. And even if it didn't, it's not going away anytime soon. (By "it" I mean forms of instaneous publishing; I think it's very possible that Twitter will be seen as a bizarre fad a few years from now.) But as the Twiblosphere has expanded, it has seduced and absorbed a bunch of projects which used to be devoted to long-view reflection and converted them to the realm of the Now.

I'm not sure that's a good thing. Actually, I suspect it's very, very bad in the long term. One of the founding hopes of the blogosphere was that all writing was forever and that your links could haunt you until the end of time, that the blogosphere could "fact check your ass." There's been some of that. But I think you could reasonably argue that the volume of writing has actually had something of the opposite effect on serious thinking: It's hard to remember arguments or schools of thought from even two months ago.

It seems to me that the Now has become a terribly over-served niche. Long-view reevaluation has become dramatically underserved.

One of my little fantasies is to have some think tank start a journal--we'll call it Last Year, just for giggles--which dealt exclusively with events from 12 months ago. So, for instance, the June 2010 issue would look back at the initial weeks of the Iranian uprising, explain the contemporaneous thinking surrounding it, and then evaluate how such thinking held up. Were the people claiming that the election was obviously rigged proven correct? Was the school lauding President Obama for his caution shown to be wise? In retrospect, was the uprising, more, or less, serious than it initially appeared?

That's a magazine I'd read, anyway.

1 comment:

Steve Sailer said...

Good point.

For example, why did oil hit $147 per barrel in the middle of 2008? That probably helped set off the financial crash of the fall of 2008 by taking money out of people's pockets and making exurban homes seem too far away. But, it seems to have disappeared as a topic of interest.