This piece was first published at Quadrant Online.
In days gone by individuals of like mind might have met up at the pub and had an evening of fine companionship. This companionship would have consisted of people coming and going, of shouting and debating, disputing facts and comments, changing the subject, reminiscing about the good old days and so on. All up a somewhat chaotic environment with its own mores and habits that might bewilder the outside observer and even repulse that observer.
It used to be the coffee house; it is now the blog.
Rather than meet in the pub or in someone’s lounge room people can now meet on the internet. To be sure meeting on the internet is still considered somewhat disreputable. But those who would use the internet for unsavoury purposes hide their activities; while blogging is a very public activity. Bloggers reveal their thoughts and opinions for the whole world to see. While the use of pseudonyms is rife, the characters and personality of individuals is often well known and understood by fellow bloggers.
What isn’t well appreciated is that blogging is a very liberal activity and a very social activity too. It may not appear to be very social to one’s immediate family as the blogger is often at the computer; yet the blogger is not alone, the blogger is not off in their own imagination, the blogger is participating in the great conversation of humanity. To my way of thinking blogging is an Oakeshottian conversation.
Michael Oakeshott should be well-known to Quadrant readers. To remind ourselves, he is probably the greatest English language philosopher of the twentieth century. His finest work is collected in his ‘Rationalism in politics and other essays’ – the new and expanded edition was published by Liberty Fund in 1991. The final essay in that collection sets out Oakeshott’s thought and approach to ‘the conversation of mankind’. He tells us ‘Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure’.
Blogging is very much an intellectual adventure. If the conversation is Oakeshottian, the adventure is Hayekian. Friedrich von Hayek has gained a certain notoriety in Australia – being Kevin Rudd’s neo-liberal whipping boy. Hayek suggests that knowledge is not concentrated or integrated but rather exists ‘as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all individuals possess’. Prices and markets serve to coordinate those bits of dispersed knowledge in our economic lives, but it is conversation that ‘distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilised man from the barbarian’ (Oakeshott).
Some readers might baulk at my lofty descriptions of blogging vis-à-vis the rudeness, sarcasm and indecency that they may observe in the blogosphere. Indeed Catallaxyfiles where I blog is often singled out as being particularly nasty. Many of those making that claim, however, are social democrats who are simply not used to being challenged by articulate, educated and intelligent individuals. They live in world where disagreement with their ideals can only be due to corruption or stupidity.
To be fair, that isn’t the entire explanation. Blogging may be a conversation but it is not genteel. It is robust; it is frank. Just as markets can be a bazaar so a conversation can be a cacophony. It is well documented that individuals can be more aggressive online than in real life; but, on the flip side, they can also be more considered, more eloquent – and, with the ability to link to other sites on the web, they can back up their arguments with evidence.
So to reject the legitimacy of conversation on the basis of tone is to place form above substance.
There is a difference to Oakeshott’s definition of a conversation. True, ‘nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present’ but there is an arbiter. Individuals commenting on a blog do so in a very public way, yet they’re in the blogger’s private property. You shouldn’t say something on a blog that you wouldn’t say in someone’s lounge.
The arbiter, however, has little control beyond setting the broad parameters of conversation. For example, many visitors to blogs are ‘lurkers’, they read but never participate. Many threads are still-born; the regular commentators don’t wish to discuss that issue. Many threads get side-tracked; the commentators go off on a tangent to the original post. Some threads are derailed; the conversation degenerates into abuse and calumny. Of course, it is important to recognise that blogging and conversation is a process and not an outcome.
Just as conversation began in the primeval forests it now continues in cyberspace. The converse is our inheritance as human beings. Technology is moving to reduce the barriers and costs of conversation and so we can expect more conversation not less.