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April 13, 2013

the historical future of blogging

Something I read in the past two weeks (it could've been Warren Ellis, and if not, definitely something in the Smart-Guy Futurist category) was detailing the ways that the Internet is different than it was ten years ago.

"What a ridiculous thing to think about," you say to yourself.  "You've got this little novelty machine, this shiny geegaw if far too new to waste time trying to superimpose some sort of change on it."  But yeah, the Internet is actually easily old enough to order a drink in a bar, and you've personally been involved with the Internet for at least fifteen years, so it's actually a more than valid consideration.  When commercial broadcast television was fifteen years old — and I mean from its debut as a viable medium, not from its actual inception — "The Tonight Show," "Lassie" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" were all already on the air.  There ain't nothing new about the Internet other than the bodies left lying on the road in its wake.

One of the lamentations of the essay that I'm trying to remember is the death of the blog.  And blog is an imprecise term — why, it's even used as a verb! — but think back twelve years ago.  Sure, you'd hit up Yahoo! for scanning headlines, and Boing Boing for the weird, but after that, you had a menu of forty or fifty personally-run websites, either memoir or commentary.  And they all had such wonderful names/sobriquets!  Clever self-appointed nicknames to protect the identities of the writers, all posting once or twice a day.  Everyone had a very personal voice, and there was no lack of novelty at all.  Wooven together it was the best zine ever, utterly dynamic and only a click away.

Today this is not the case.  That zine had an expiration date.  Some writers went pro (the Gawker/Slate/Awl Industrial Complex), some started families and lost their leisure time, and others just withered as the blogging ecosphere slowly choked to death.  Like the passage of time, it's not a good thing or a bad thing, but I know that if you looked at my browsing history then and compared it to my browsing history now, there were probably five or six times more sites I visited regularly then.  Our blogging biodiversity has plunged.

(And this is not to take away from what has replaced it.  Many of your favorite writers you can still read, at those websites that are de facto magazines with no print presence, and the bar keeps getting raised talent-wise.)

This brings us to the obvious: this here site is of course one of those blogs I was talking about.  Like, I'm still here.  And not exclusively of course; I'm pretty vigorously nights-and-weekends-ing pieces to the Awl and other sites to be named later, and I have the Twitter feed, and the Tumblr page.  And sometimes it feels conspicuous: "Hey, look at Grampa over there, with his blawg.  And sometimes it just feels like a redundancy.  Why not wrap this Russian-linkref-spam-bait up and let the microblogging platforms represent me?

Two reasons: one, as a gesture, of that biodiversity that is long gone.  I'm stubborn.  I'm coming up on ten years on this thing (and four years of a different site before that), and it's all searchable, and there you go.

And the second reason is that it just makes sense.  It is not expensive to foot the costs of this site, and for that small amount of money, I get to own the means of production.  Not that I plan on monetizing this ever, as the bulk of my effort is going into writing for other people, but I could.  Twenty years ago, owning the means of production, publishing your own writing, was an enormous timesuck and nigh-impossible to distribute.  I hit publish and I can potentially reach the entire online population — what, two or three billion?

That's too fucking neat to walk away from, even if it's my second or third priority.

But, and this might be the place to expect the apology for navel-gazing and the failure to start this whole thing with IYI, I firmly believe that it's as important to spend as much time looking back as you spend looking forward.  And vice versa.  It's how we know where now is.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:56 PM

April 12, 2013

cops in schools

I can't put my finger on it, but there's something about this story that seems to encapsulate a great many aspects of What's Wrong These Days.  It's a look at the effect of having "school resource officers," cops paid by school districts to be present on middle and high school campuses.

At first you think that this story is about the efficacy of the plan of the National Rifle Association to station armed officers in every school, so as to protect from mass murderers.  And it is related — school plus police officer — but it takes a left turn pretty early in:

Yet the most striking impact of school police officers so far, critics say, has been a surge in arrests or misdemeanor charges for essentially nonviolent behavior -- including scuffles, truancy and cursing at teachers -- that sends children into the criminal courts.

For example, in the State of Texas, more than one hundred thousand misdemeanor tickets are written on students each year.  At the risk of being obvious, that's not what schools are for.

And you're tempted to classify this as an example of unintended consequences, but really it's much darker than that.  In fact, I have a hard time thinking of this as unintended at all.  The officers are not there by accident — they're there because at some point someone decided that these schools had discipline/behavior problems that could not be handled by school personnel.  And I'll bet you a ham sandwich that these districts are not in particularly wealthy areas.

My initial fear of the armed school officer idea (once I was done laughing my ass off, of course), is of institutional incompetence.  In every profession, whether neurosurgeon or street sweeper, you have to assume that X percent are dangerously, if not criminally, incompetent.  That percentage changes amongst professions, but if you have a hundred thousand armed school officers, what will the incompetence of the X percent look like?

But actually the consequences would be much worse than the shooting by a school officer, but rather the criminalization of the entire school, turning it into a place where not getting hassled by the cops becomes the goal for the day.

And you have to believe that the people who want this are not purely cynically ill-intentioned, and yet there are people who earnestly want this.

It's not a happy story.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:51 AM

April 11, 2013

henry blodget on inequality

I'm generally a words only guy, yesterday Henry Blodget filed a piece full of charts, many charts, charts that will make you unhappy.  It's about wealth and income inequality, or, as Blodget describes it, "3 Million Overlords and 300 Million Serfs."  (You and I, we'd be serfs.)

Blodget is an unabashed capitalist, but that does not prevent him from identifying the drop-everything problem with the inequality (other than immorality, naturally):

Because when inequality gets bad enough, serfs don't have much money to buy products from overlords. This hurts the overlords' ability to get even richer.

(That's what's wrong with the American economy right now. The serfs are tapped out. The overlords are responding by firing more serfs, to increase profits. Unfortunately, because one person's "costs" are another person's "wages," this is making the problem worse.)

The charts, from an anonymously produced video, compare perception of wealth inequality, which perceptions are pretty scary, with the even scarier reality.

And this is Henry Blodget this morning:

Profits Just Hit Another All-Time High, Wages Just Hit Another All-Time Low

I know there are all other sorts of problems competing for public attention, combined with the calcification of our peculiar top-heavy capitalism into orthodoxy in the public imagination, but I'd say it's about time that someone taught the people in the bottom four quintiles of wealth how to vote.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:20 AM

April 9, 2013

the moral relativism of david brooks

It is not a surprise that this sentiment came from the fingers of David Brooks:
The 1990 Tory coup against Margaret Thatcher was the most intense political event I've covered. The Conservative politicians who were trying to remove her from party leadership and the prime minister's office knew they were toppling a person who was their political and moral superior.

But damn if that didn't skyrocket my blood pressure.

For the sake of argument, let's just pretend that there is an objective way to determine the relative morality of a human being.  I think it's a slippery slope myself, but to deny that would be to deny the central tenet of the very existence of David Brooks — his moral superiority, or what you and I call smugness.  Don't wanna do that to the poor man and the legions of hygienic, punctual David Brooks fans out there, so, sure!

And I won't even take exception with the concept that the Tories that engineered their petit coup were fully aware of the Iron Lady's "moral superiority."  It's a ridiculous interpretation of history: "Oy, should we be doing this? What with her be bein' all superior to us, morally?"  Come on, man.  But, see above w/r/t the central tenet of the very existence of David Brooks, etc.  That's exactly what they said.

But if you want to deem a person who not only shredded the social safety net of an entire nation, but stood as a beacon for other nations to do so, dooming entire generations of underclasses to even more marked poverty and hopelessness, as some paragon of morality then you (and I guess that means you, David Brooks) have a pretty fucked up sense of morality.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:50 AM

April 8, 2013

appreciating the passages of the loathsome

Today is the day that we get to have our latest iteration of the public argument: "Is it okay to celebrate the death of loathed public figures?"

Let me abbreviate this for you.  Some people are the kind of people that celebrate the deaths of loathed public figures, and some people think it in poor taste to do so, that in death, the loathed lose a certain loathesomemess, and we are all the same six feet under.  Each of these "some people" think that the other "some people" are daft.  Then someone invented the Internet and now we have to hear it all over again every four or five years.

The event precipitating this of course is the death of Margaret Thatcher, who was like the Ronald Reagan of the United Kingdom except that the insane wealth disparity that it took thirty years to achieve in the U.S. Thatcher did in ten.  For that reason she is beloved (by assholes).

But please, feel free to jump in.  It's why we have an Internet.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:24 AM