Tales from the Internet: Part 1, Weapons of Misinstruction

By Erik Jay
web posted March 27, 2000

In the early 1980's, I was living in California's Silicon Valley when Apple Computer started the "desktop publishing revolution" by pairing the graphics-oriented Macintosh with the first 300-dot-per-inch (dpi) LaserWriter. So excited was one computer industry pundit -- whose "insider" industry newsletter, one of the first of that extraordinarily profitable information-delivery model, I helped to ghostwrite -- that she insisted on the most sensational sort of boosterism. "This [technology] is going to put the First Amendment into overdrive!" was a typical pull-quote from 1986. Eagerly anticipated was a bumper crop of Mac-and-LaserWriter-equipped reincarnations of Shakespeare, William Randolph Hearst, Andy Warhol, and Rupert Murdoch.

I wasn't so optimistic. "It's like thinking that the invention of the phone would improve people's diction," I remember commenting at the time, but I was just a junior hack/flack and learned early on to quash my contrarian impulses and carry on with the job of churning out purposeful commercial prose. As I had no illusions about being an "independent journalist" -- any kind of journalist! -- I wrote what was expected. But I knew that the result of lowering the cost of entry into publishing would be reduced standards in every specialized skill used in the process: lower quality research, writing, editing, graphic design, typography, pre-press, and final product. "There will a ton of 300-dpi garbage," I predicted.

Looking back over the past fifteen or so years, I wish I'd been as accurate in predicting winning stocks. Fact is, the desktop publishing (DTP) revolution created a new generation of semi-literate, button-pushing, macro-wielding, template-dependent DTP'ers. So, once again, the human race learns the lesson that great tools don't create great craftsmen: as I explained to a colleague whose new hardware and software had somehow failed to engender creative genius in his expectant soul, "With the best paintbrushes and canvas in the world, I can't get close to what a gifted artist could do with an eyebrow pencil and a cocktail napkin." When he asked if he should try eyebrow pencils, too -- is it the latest hip trend? is it chic? -- I knew he didn't get it.

I bet he gets it now, a decade and a half into the DTP revolution, and after about five years of cruising the information superhighway. He was a writer who thought that certain technological aids could make him a graphic designer, and found out they wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't. But he could write, and knew how to research and present his arguments with clarity, cogency, and conviction. And even with the advent of the Internet and its first "usenet" groups and ftp file swaps, it took a little doing to compose and package and transmit and do the follow-up on a professionally-written piece, all of which justified the initial (short-lived) perception of "cyber" writers as pioneers, cutting edge, the trusted Fifth (maybe Sixth) Estate.

Then dawned the era of ubiquitous e-mail and personal web pages -- the virtual, digital analog to the DTP revolution, where everyone now has an electronic soapbox. There are as many pundits as there are USPS letter carriers, and the analogy is, in the words of the high-tech wonks, "scalable": it stretches easily to contain as well the fact that, like letter carriers, many Internet "commentators" and "columnists" and "critics" are delivering messages they didn't even read closely, if at all, much less compose. Like the DTP revolution, the "information revolution" has resulted in the proliferation, not of high-quality expression, but of digitized, high-speed, well-packaged, swiftly disseminated, often undigestible garbage.

Of course, quality material abounds still, but in any version of Gresham's Law ("Bad money drives out good") we will see a dramatic increase in lowest-common-denominator product as the means of production enter untrained, untested, and undisciplined hands. With the advent of $400 computers, free Internet access, freeware and shareware applications for everything from web-surfing to photo-editing, and $75-a-year web sites with 50 or 100 megabytes (MB) of storage and 6 gigabytes (GB) of monthly in/out traffic (over 10 million letters' worth), the cost of entry to "electronic publishing" is just a tad over zero. Essentially, anyone armed with the basics -- the computer and the software and the Internet connection, not to mention something to say, original or otherwise -- can become a "publisher" or "reporter" or "pundit" or "analyst" simply by saying so and hitting the "upload" button.

And that's exactly what has been happening, particularly since Internet service providers adopted the $10-to-20-per-month "unlimited access" pricing model going on four years ago. The ubiquity of low-cost computers and cheap web hosting, as described above, has accelerated the trend dramatically. Paralleling these developments is the emergence of demographic data showing that libertarians, independents, and individualists constitute a much greater fraction of the net's population than the nation's. Hence the perception, amplified by the media when it suits them and denied when it doesn't, that the Internet and its content is heavily slanted to starboard, therefore making it "undependable" by definition.

Strange as this may seem (to me, too), I happen to agree with the establishmentarian media's take on this one -- but, naturally, for entirely different reasons and with different lessons to extract. But they are right in asserting that (a) there is a lot of unprofessional (and some downright fraudulent) reporting on the Internet and (b) there are a lot of anti-big-government folks there, too. The error that they make -- well, considering the sources, perhaps it's deliberate after all -- is presuming that the latter are responsible for the former. Of course, that simply cannot be true; at least, not entirely true.

But, because of the portside spin that CNN and the Big 3 Networks and the rest of the media cabal put on everything, to the extent that it's true at all it does serious damage to libertarians, conservatives, and anti-statists of all stripes. It is crucially important that the weapons of our ideological warfare -- the quotes and citations, the facts and figures, the names and dates and places, the concepts and catch-phrases, the reasoning and the rationales -- be in first-rate condition and stand up to the strictest scrutiny.

Sadly, this is not always the case. As I am reminded almost daily, in this great Internetworked nation of ours there are invisible hordes of people with whom I share a fundamental awareness that America got off track somewhere around 1905 or so. But all too many of them leave me and my more pensive allies in big clouds of polemical dust as they speed off on one tangent or another, chasing their tales of the Bilderbergers or ZOG [ZOG refers to "Zionist Occupied Government", a phrase used by White supremacists to allege Jews are in control of America's government - ed.] or Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.'s evil twin. I used to get a kick out of some of the more bizarre rumors -- Clinton putting out a contract on Ron Brown comes to mind -- but in the past year an unending stream of foolish, fustian, spurious, and backfire-prone rumors and hoaxes emanating from the fringes has ricocheted off the intended targets and hit everyone to the right of Ted Kennedy. "Heard it on the Internet? And you believe it? You must be a member of that vast right-wing conspiracy!"

It's way past time for the proponents of liberty to do some remedial study in critical thinking.

Next week: "Tales from the Internet, Part 2: Clear Thinking is Right Thinking" -- and be ready for some mental calisthenics.

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.

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