Sunday, March 21, 2010


I know, on Health Care D-Day, I should be writing about nothing but Topic A, but I was just reading Michiko Kaukutani's piece in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section about the supposed evils of our blogging/remix/mashup/appropriation culture. There are a hundred things wrong with Kakutani's piece, prominent among them her apparent acceptance of the notion that mashups rather than original works dominate our culture (if there's a video mashup that's made a millionth of the money that the entirely non-mashed-up Avatar has made, or a verbal remix that's moved a .001% of the units sold by J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer or James Patterson, I'm not aware of it). But I want to address one point Kakutani makes about our politics, which would probably lead many people to nod in agreement, even though there's plenty of reason to believe she's utterly wrong:

...the Internet's nurturing of niche cultures is contributing to what Cass Sunstein calls "cyberbalkanization." Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier, as Mr. Sunstein observes in his 2009 book "Going to Extremes," for people "to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions."

... One result of this nicheification of the world is that consensus and common ground grow ever smaller, civic discourse gets a lot less civil, and pluralism ... comes to feel increasingly elusive....

What this doesn't explain is why the city I live in seems less balkanized than it did in a pre-Web age, as does the city I grew up in.

I lived through busing in Boston in the 1970s -- a time when no one was on the Internet and you watched TV with rabbit ears. I came to New York in 1976 and stayed through years of racial polarization, particularly in the mayoralties of Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

There's much less racial anger in both cities now. Why? Why hasn't a balkanizing Internet culture increased the hatred?

I think it's because the ability of us online bloviators to fan the flames of resentment is nothing compared to the opinion-molding power of Big Media and demagogues who are in positions of real power. Mayors Mennino in Boston and Bloomberg in New York, whatever their faults, have sought to lower the temperature in their cities -- and it is lower. It helps in New York that Rupert Murdoch's focus is increasingly on national politics -- his New York Post double-teamed with both Koch and Giuliani to stir up fear and anger back in the day -- but I think the main factor here is what we get from real-world leaders.

That's not what you'd expect if you followed the cyberphobe analysis to its logical conclusion -- you'd think online rabble-rousers would be keeping race polarization alive, just because polarization is what we do. But it ain't happening.

We have tremendous polarization at a national level primarily because one entire political party, and one media operation whose home base is a'70s-era technology known as cable television, have sought to polarize us and keep us polarized. It's not the bloggers' fault -- even the right-wing bloggers. It's the fault of mainstream communicators with old-fashioned sources of clout.

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