We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

On the particular and the universal – how the Internet has shifted the balance

Last night I gave a talk at the Tim Evans household on the theme of “Which Does Freedom Better? Ideas or Institutions?” I followed my usual practice of trying to organise my thoughts during the day of the talk, but this time the procedure didn’t go smoothly, because my thoughts remained stubbornly disorganised throughout the day and remained so on the night. So instead I just flung out as many disorganised thoughts as I could – enough to provoke a dozen postings here, another half dozen at White Rose, and a dozen more at my Culture Blog – and enough to make a decent evening of it for those gathered, if not such a decent talk.

Here is just one idea that I alluded to last night, and I apologise if you think it’s a rather obvious one.

This – to me anyway – fairly obvious idea is that the Internet has surely shifted the balance of power away from the defence of particular institutions and towards the proclamation of universal, “disembodied” ideas. (That word “disembodied”, cropped up a lot last night, as did “embodied”.) If you are writing for a local newspaper or magazine, with a local readership, the more you paint in local colour and local detail the happier your readers will be. Their local institutions and ceremonies and routines – their look and feel, so to speak – are what your readers have in common. School sports day reportage is going to be about who ran the fastest and jumped the highest and furthest, who wore the prettiest dresses, and what happened when it suddenly poured with rain – not about the philosophy of sporting competition or what sport means in society, or about how the government is hacking away at what remains of Western Civilisation by selling off school sports grounds, because that will divide your readers politically, and worse, bore most of them stupid. The particular is what the locals have in common with each other, so the particular is what the local media print. The more local the print media, the more true this is. The selling off of sports grounds would only be relevant if the government was trying to sell off this particular sports ground.

On the other hand, if you are writing for something like Samizdata … well you know what goes here. It’s the point-by-point opposite of the above paragraph. You will naturally seek out a global coalition of support, thinly scattered all over the planet but adding up to something big, for your particular interpretation of events, with the events only being used as illustrations of universal claims. Your readers don’t care who won those races. They do care about what it all means and what, generally, globally, ought to be done to make things of this sort in general work better, anywhere and everywhere. You do not want any of your readers, whether in Northumberland or Texas or Kuala Lumpur, to feel left out, You want all the time to be saying things that they feel are being aimed straight at them and at their thoughts and pre-occupations. The Internet is a giant philosophy machine, you might say. And of course printing, in the ink-on-paper sense, has (virtually) nothing to do with it.

I wrote all that off the top of my head, but others must surely have written along similar lines. Links welcome.

The above hardly begins to do justice to this enormoussubject. There’s obviously plenty to be said in favour of the defence of key freedom-embodying institutions, and of course in favour of establishing new freedom-embodying institutions, such as Samizdata to name only one. And I should perhaps add that anyone now reading this who was also present at my talk last night may be a bit puzzled by the above paragraphs. There was no mention last night of school sports days. Well, as I said last night gentlemen, you got me in mid-bake with a lot of half-baked stuff.

4 comments to On the particular and the universal – how the Internet has shifted the balance

  • Lorenzo

    OK, I want to know what time in the morning Brian posted that one.

  • One of the problems that the above post does not resolve is the tendency to examine the Internet through one particular lens. The internet allows certain groups to address a global audience with a ‘big picture’ and also allows local groups to connect and network.

    What is being touched upon here and last night is the relationship between information and institutions. The permutations within that relationship are complex and multi-layered. Samizdata itself supports a network of bloggers both on the internet and around the London area, a physical manifestation of these connections.

    It also entwines, supports and builds upon the longer serving institutions and relationships that the Libertarian Alliance has fostered and maintained.

    The weblog has extended the audience that you can reach but has it also strengthened the local? I would argue that it probably has, though these trends are very hard to measure.

    By extending your audience, the discourse adopted often becomes moralised, and a story or an event requires a universal claim, rooted in the ‘big picture’ to legitimise the posting.

    Is it constructive to view Samizdata as a philosophical pulpit where sermons are read by the converted? By concentrating on this ‘big picture’ and maintaining a faithful readership that agrees with what is written, has a blog not carved out a local community in cyberspace yet lost the advantages of wider communication.

    It’s a half baked comment but ideas, institutions and communication form an iron triangle.

  • Jim

    In a small town everyone knows what everyone else is doing; they read the newspaper to see who got caught.

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    But seriously, I think you may be heading in the right direction with this. I subscribe to a local newspaper that publishes twice a week (and sometimes also buy its rival that publishes once a week — when my kids were active in school and town sports I subscribed to both papers) — I also subscribe to the nearest “big city” daily newspaper so that I can get regional news and a bit of world and national news — if something very important is going on (like a war in Iraq) I have my choice of 24-hour television news channels. But above all I have the Internet, where I can find blogs presenting almost instant corrections to errors, slants. and lies found in mainline news reporting, plus opinions and debates about important topics, ranging from political to cultural to scientific….