Why Blog I: The Story

Lots of academics are put off by the blogging medium. They think of the academic as searching for transcendent truth, and the blogger as addicted to ephemeral buzz. While there’s surely a divergence between the academic vocation and the blogging avocation, I tend to think of these two activities as contrapuntal, each drawing on and enriching the other even while being opposed in nature.

Whether journalist or academic, everyone has presuppositions and value commitments they bring to the table. In a blog post, you can express those commitments much more openly than you can or should in a work of objective journalism or detached scholarly analysis. Ideally, these forms complement one another. The blog post is a place to test out one’s theories on new developments. The blog itself can become a series of interpretations of the news that fit into one’s theory. But in a scholarly work, one is absolutely committed to finding and addressing the best arguments against one’s own point of view. Similarly, I think that objective journalists have to seek out the voices that most directly undermine their own narrative. Bloggers just let commenters do that–and then respond as best they can.

Blogs give you a venue to tell a story, and to entertain readers with some diversions. On this blog, I’ve been exploring a few narratives:

1) On health care: The US health care system wastes huge amounts of money, shamefully inflicts financial and physical distress on many vulnerable people, and has been excessively commercialized. Profits are too often put ahead of patients. We can learn from other countries that spend less, and have as good or better health care outcomes.

2) On bioethics: Though performance and appearance-enhancing technologies may be individually rational, they often set off a rat race of wasteful and unfair competition.

3) On inequality: Increasing inequality in income and wealth is better explained by the power of the wealthiest than by their talent, merit, or hard work. This self-reinforcing inequality has in turn made the middle and lower classes more vulnerable.

4) On internet policy: The mainstream of public and academic opinion is too complacent about the aggregation of power in intermediaries ranging from dominant phone companies to search engines. We need some independent entity capable of fully understanding online intermediaries’ business practices.

I also believe that all these stories are interconnected: that 3 leads to tiered business practices in 1, 2, and 4; that that tiering in turn reinforces the inequality reflected in 3; and so on. I’ll confess it’s a metanarrative of conflict, not of progress; of the zero-sum rather than the synergistic. It contradicts the usual myths of market magic, of doux commerce leading to ever more mutually beneficial exchanges.

Such a perspective doesn’t have the zest or zing of a fun-filled “World of Tomorrow” exhibit, but I’ll leave the “cheer-’em-up” game to Regis & Kathie Lee. The narratives may be decried as ideological, but ideology is inevitable. Like the scientists exploring the dark side of the natural order, a blogger with my bent can keep a running tally of all the ways in which today’s idols have feet of clay . . . and can suggest some solider footing for our collective life.

Of course, events such as 2008’s financial meltdown will do much more to shatter the self-images of the age than books or blog posts. But a blog allows one to chronicle these events daily, weighing how well the first draft of history fits into one’s perceptions of the world.

Occasionally the story has to alter. Keynes once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” As Andrew Sullivan argues, the blog is a place for rapid-fire assessment and re-assessment of the world:

We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge. This is partly true for all journalism, which is, as its etymology suggests, daily writing, always subject to subsequent revision. And a good columnist will adjust position and judgment and even political loyalty over time, depending on events. But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.

No columnist or reporter or novelist will have his minute shifts or constant small contradictions exposed as mercilessly as a blogger’s are. A columnist can ignore or duck a subject less noticeably than a blogger committing thoughts to pixels several times a day. A reporter can wait—must wait—until every source has confirmed. A novelist can spend months or years before committing words to the world. For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.

For the dedicated blogger, the commitment to “write out loud” carries risks and opportunities. There is always the temptation to return again and again to well-worn themes, or to overidentify with some partisan movement. It feels good to build up an audience of dittoheads. But the thoughtful have a shot at accreting a record of work that builds into something more than a pile of random thoughts. It’s no surprise to me that a gifted blogger like Grant McCracken has organized posts into a book/blog compendium. For those seeking truth, constantly testing one’s theories against the realities of the day is a worthy discipline. And for the self-expressive, it’s a fun hobby.

Up Next: Why Blog II: The Comments.

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