Apr 18

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

"Blogging" in 1918

There's a wonderful op-ed in the New York Times today, in which Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about his latest discovery in the RSS feed for the online book catalog at the University of Pennsylvania. Today's discovery was a 1918 book by Hilaire Belloc entitled The Free Press. Klinkenborg writes:

The free press that Belloc describes was a horde of small, highly opinionated, sometimes propagandistic papers that arose in reaction to "the official Press of Capitalism." What characterized the free press, Belloc wrote, was "disparate particularism."...

There are whole paragraphs in Belloc's essay where, if you substitute "blogs" for "the Free Press," you will be struck by the parallels. He notes that the journals of the free press seldom pay their way and that they often suffer from the impediment of "imperfect information," simply because it is not in the politicians' interests to speak to them. They tend to preach to the converted. And they are limited by the founder's vision. "It is difficult," Belloc writes, "to see how any of the papers I have named would long survive a loss of their present editorship."

Belloc's point is not to expose the limitations of bloggers — excuse me, the Free Press. It is to show how, imperfect as they are, they can contribute enormously to our ability to learn what's going on. Anyone who spends much time reading political blogs will hear a familiar note — in far greater prose — among Belloc's certainties. He writes, in short, as a blogger of his own time.

This is an op-ed well worth reading, both for the historical context (history does repeat itself -- it's a spiral rather than a straightforward progression) and for the appreciation of the rediscoveries made possible by the free availability of books out of copyright. [via Peter Brantley in email.]

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Comments: 3

  Tom Hoffman [04.18.06 05:31 PM]

The Modernist Journals Project, led by Robert Scholes at Brown and Sean Latham at the U. of Tulsa, is publishing on the web the contents of some of the journals Belloc refers to. They've got the entire run of The New Age up, and a new site featuring Wyndham Lewis's BLAST should be real soon now.

  Kevin Farnham [04.18.06 09:57 PM]

There are some key differences between the free press of the earlier time period and today's blog-centered free press.

1. In the earlier age, publication and distribution were both costly, so the reach of the free press papers was necessarily confined, often to a geographic locality. Today, publication and distribution costs are close to nil in all but the poorest nations.

2. In the earlier age, once the paper was published and read, it was discarded, and the record of what had been written was lost. Today, soon after any information is published on the Internet, it is crawled and archived and copied to other servers around the world. What was published becomes a permanent public record, and is no longer under the control of the original author.

I've been thinking about blogs and publishing a real lot, while I've worked on my book about MySpace safety, which is being published by my own little publishing company (publishing a book still does have publication and distribution costs, since the book is printed on paper and physically delivered to the reader). At first I considered MySpace just an extended blog. It's more than that, and it's different too.

But, MySpace and blogs do share this fact: the published data is immediately delivered into the public domain, and it is forever out of the control of the author who wrote it and the publisher who published it.

Lawrence Lessig writes about this topic provocatively. The concept of copyright begins to break down here.

Yes, it is very much a spiral, but.. the distance between our position on the arm and the inner position of the old world of free press publications, is so vast.

We end our MySpace book, which is really mostly about how to use MySpace safely, with a warning to MySpace users, which applies to bloggers just as much: publish with care, because what you publish can never be taken back in this age.

And, with the advances in technology for analyzing and correlating free-form data, there will most definitely be a future day when anyone (employers, financial institutions, political organizations, would-be lovers) can execute a command that returns an ordered report that summarizes everything you ever chose to publish in a blog, on MySpace, on your own web site, in a comment to a blog entry,... with links to let the person dig down for the detailed context of the more interesting quotes.

It's a "free press" that we have, for certain, with blogs today. But, we also our words are permanent, irretrievable, irrevocable.

Kind of scary!

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