September 29, 2004

From hacker to high priest

In the Oct. 4 issue of Newsweek, Steven Levy has a column entitled "Memo to Bloggers: Heal Thyself", which ends with a memorable phrase:

We were promised a society of philosophers. But the Blogosphere is looking more and more like a nation of ankle-biters.

This is the same Steven Levy whose classic pop-ethnography Hackers is one of my favorite books. Hackers depicts the early evolution of the "hacker ethic", with its connections to traditional American virtues of individual initiative, informal voluntary cooperation, suspicion of authority, and intellectual curiosity.

Here's how Levy put it in 1984 -- a version that's made it into the Columbia World of Quotations:

The Hacker Ethic: Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
All information should be free.
Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
Computers can change your life for the better.

In blog years, 1984 was like the neolithic age. The PC was all of three years old. The first Apple Macintosh had just been announced. Only a few people had access to email, and even fewer used it. NSFNET was two years in the future. The first web browser (Mosaic) was made available eight years later, in 1992, at a time when there were about 50 web servers in the whole world. The first easy-to-use blogging software didn't emerge until 1999, fifteen years later. But there's a clear progression from Levy's 1984 version of the Hacker Ethic to the ethos of blogging today.

In contrast, consider the "frame" evoked by the word ankle-biters.

There are the big people, the grown-ups, trying to go about their important business. And then there are the little ones, down there on the floor, oblivious to the larger issues, just nipping at passing ankles and generally getting in the way. It's a term that's traditionally used for small children and yippy little dogs.

This is the perspective of those that Levy satirized in his 1984 book as the "high priests", the ones who depend on credentials, hierarchy, top-down goals and methods, controlled access. It's also, ironically, the way that powerful men and women tend to view an independent press.

What's happened? Levy is 20 years older, that's one thing. But there's also a big difference between then and now in his relationship to the subculture he's writing about. In Hackers, he was writing about a set of quaint, eccentric grouplets in which he had no real role. As a budding writer, fresh from an M.A. in literature at Penn State, he had no reason to have any allegiance to the High Priests of computing, who surely seemed much more alien to him than the members of the Tech Model Railroad Club or the Homebrew Computer Club did. But now Levy is writing as a senior editor at Newsweek, and he's writing about a subculture of people carrying out what he calls "their promise to 'fact-check Big Media's a--'." In this encounter, he's a High Priest himself.

This is the same impulse that led to former CBS V.P. Jonathan Klein to characterize the typical blogger as a "guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing", and led NPR's "critic at large" John Powers to complain about how bloggers "shriek 'gotcha' at tiny factual errors in articles written on short deadlines by people who actually have to leave the house to do their work", and led Lewis Lapham to compare blogging to "scratching your name on the men's room wall of the, you know, Blue Moon Bar".

Recently, NPR's Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin reflected on these issues as follows:

First, we must acknowledge that the blogs have truly arrived. It is hard for journalists who have led a sheltered life without public accountability to acknowledge that those days are over.

Second, it will be tough for ombudsmen and women to admit that their unique role as overseers on behalf of the public is also changing. We need to make room on the bench and give the bloggers a place at the dinner table. The question remains: who's for dinner?

NPR listeners have always been quick to point out our errors and lapses, and in a non-partisan way. The blogs are different because many are explicitly political. It will be interesting to see if the "blogosphere" still has as much impact on mainstream journalism once the election is over.

But blogs are also different because they have an independent way to reach the public, not subject to the control of NPR or any other institution. That's what "mainstream media" have the hardest time accepting, I think.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 29, 2004 11:00 AM