I’ve had a personal presence on the Web since 1994. Sadly, this personal site hasn’t changed much since I first put it up as a college student during the tail end of the initial wave of excitement about the Web in academia before the Internet went truly mass-market with Netscape the following year. At the time, I didn’t know what personal Web page was for, so I mostly used it to post contact information and organize my favorite bookmarks. In fact, that’s still what I use it for and why it changes so infrequently.
When I first became aware of blogging, I didn’t know what to make of it. One of my college friends, Aziz, was the first person I was aware of in the blog scene. Aziz always had something to say, so this didn’t surprise me. He had previously taken to posting a range of his college papers on his Web site, something I thought was interesting, but seemed random as an act of publishing to me at the time. If I were to publish something, I reasoned, I’d want it to be part of some coherent plan, not just throwing up whatever I had around just to have something published on the Web. So I didn’t follow suit, even though I had a store of college papers rivaling Aziz’s at least in potential for reader boredom. Plus there was the time factor. Where did Aziz find the time to write all of those entries? Even if I had that much to say (which I don’t, as an introvert, I tend toward the laconic, this post notwithstanding), when would I find the time to write it down, much less in a format fit for public consumption?
My second big exposure to blogging came in 2002-2003 when I was managing IT services for a private boarding school. Students were getting into all kinds of trouble posting hateful drivel on LiveJournal. It was typical teenage social jockeying, back-biting, and electronic note-passing, but written in the public domain, so the impact was magnified. That left a sour taste in my mouth about the merits of self-publishing on the Web. It seemed shallow, self-centered, capricious, and potentially destructive.
So, while I knew about blogging from its early days, I am a relative newcomer to seeing its merits. The blogosphere has obviously grown a lot in the last decade. It’s become a cultural force. It’s credited with changing the course of the 2006 US elections. Prominent bloggers are now published in traditional print media and cited by traditional broadcast media. This increasing visibility started to get my attention and made me see the positive possibility of blogging in the hands of those with something more than gossip or drivel to publish.
I now get the majority of my news from blogs rather than traditional media. I’m a fan of RSS and use Google Reader as my RSS aggregator to create my continually updated personal newsfeeds customized to my range of interests. I subscribe to the Web versions of traditional, edited media sources, as well as a variety of blogs. While there’s still a lot of drivel to sort through on the blog side, I have been greatly enriched by the expanded range of topics covered and the multiple perspectives that the self-publishing medium allows.
As an IT professional, I’m keenly interested in computer and communications technology. Working in education, I have had an opportunity to see how both adults and children use these technologies. I have been fascinated to see various communications technologies introduced, evolve, and find niches of application in the adult and child worlds. What has occurred to me in watching people use these technologies, especially watching teenagers use them, is that we are not just speeding up things that happened before the the invention of the Internet and mobile telephones, but we seem to be generating novel ways of interacting with each other.
While my initial taste of teen blogging was distasteful, there were still positive aspects to it, such as the opportunity for self-reflection and community inquiry. Certainly now educators are finding those uses for blogs as teaching tools. Beyond that, though, I am fascinated by the way teens use the increasingly ubiquitous instant communications technologies of mobile telephones, text messaging, and IM to facilitate group decision-making processes. While it may seem frivolous for a group of 9 teens to sit on their separate computers in a group chat session for an hour to figure out what their social activity for the evening is going to be (a discussion that usually drags on so long as to be the social activity for the evening), I can’t help but wonder whether, in this frivolous test case, they aren’t forging the skills they will use later in life to facilitate shared, real-time, decision-making for serious business and life decisions. Likewise, when the teenage girl on vacation calls her girlfriend back home on her mobile phone in order to help her decide which skirt to buy at the mall she’s in, is she just engaging in teenage peer-dependence or is she learning to leverage information technology to extend and improve her decision-making abilities by incorporating dialog with others, a habit and a skill that may serve her well in future decision contexts of greater consequence?
Those ruminations have inclined me to believe that in these global communications networks we have built, from the telegraph, to the telephone, to mobile phones and the Internet, and in all of the services we have of late layered on top, we are building what amounts to a rapidly evolving global nervous system. While I don’t import a central, coherent consciousness to this nascent nervous system, I think the metaphor is apt. We have created a new space for human communication, engendering a new set of practices, new methods for transmitting human culture and belief, giving us the possibility of greater coordination and integration. I see these networks as the physical scaffolding for Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the increasingly integrated domain of human thought that determines our global cultural destiny.
Whether we’re headed for the Omega point, as Teilhard believed, or a technological singularity, as Vinge & Kurzweil believe, I can’t say, but this view of communications technology as the nervous system of the noosphere, as an enabler of the next phase of cultural and social evolution, has begun to inform my view of blogging. For if these communications systems are, in a sense, a global nervous system, with the mobile phone calls, text and instant messages like nerve firings transmitting information and facilitating real-time, interdependent decision-making, then Websites and blogs are the growing memory banks of beliefs that form the worldview which provides the context of meaning informing these decisions.
This implies a moral dimension to blogging. If it’s actually read, what one publishes on the Web adds to the weft of a belief-system informing the actions of others. Of course, the same is true of anything one might do or say out loud in the presence of others, as our actions and words influence others all the time, but this impact is magnified on the Web because of its global nature. What one blogs has the potential, at least, to affect many, since our audience is the entire Internet. Even if no humans read our words, search engine spiders will. Words and links expressing any particular intention add weight to searches, thereby influencing what people see when they look for information, potentially changing their beliefs as they are in the process of discovery and learning, even when our actual words are never read by them.
So if we publish drivel or gossip or let go with sloppy thinking or push hate, I believe we are, in effect, polluting the nascent noosphere. We are spreading bad karma. We are propagating trash and teaching others the worst of ourselves. We should, instead, recognizing the increasing influence of this medium, blog those beliefs we most want to see reflected in the world.
What this analysis really implies for me, though, as a person who came to blogging late and has, thus far, contributed extremely little, is that one should blog. If one wants to participate in the global exchange of ideas, to help create the noosphere, to have even a small influence on the drift of thought and generation of beliefs in individuals as they are informed by the content of the Web, then one must contribute to this online conversation. For beliefs have consequences: Beliefs guide actions and beliefs are informed by the culture. The culture is now influenced by our thoughts as blogged on the Web. We have a tool now that allows us to participate in the generation of cultural belief structures in a way that did not exist for the average person before. To increase the likelihood that those belief structures will reflect our best natures and highest aspirations, not just the our base instincts, lowest common denominator thinking, and the thoughts of vocal extremists, then thoughtful people with too little time on their hands must participate as fully as possible. That’s the moral imperative of blogging.