A New Year

This is not the first time I’ve gone quiet on this blog simply because I was busy. Fall 2017 was in many ways the busiest semester I’ve ever had at Swarthmore: I taught two courses, I chaired my department, I became the co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation, and I sold my house and moved.

But I have gone quiet for other reasons as well. I am struggling to understand what the good of writing in public is at a time when I’m prepared to encourage others to do so.

When I began blogging in a pre-WordPress era, I was already a long-time participant in online conversation, all the way back to pre-Usenet BBSs, including the pay service GEnie. So I think I held no illusions about what were already problems of long-standing in online culture: trolling, harassment, mobbing, deception, anonymity, and so on.

Nevertheless, I started a blog for two major reasons. First, to have an outlet for my own thinking, as a kind of public diary that would let me express my thinking about professional life, politics, popular culture and other issues as I saw fit, and perhaps in so doing keep myself from talking too much among friends and colleagues. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in that, because I still overwhelm conversations around me if I’m not thoughtful about restraining myself.

The second was to see if I could participate usefully in what I hoped would grow into a new and more democratic public sphere, one that escaped the exclusivity of postwar American public discussion. I think I did a good job at evolving an ethic for myself and then inhabiting it consistently. That had a cost to the quality of my prose, because being more respectful, cautious and responsible in my blogging usually meant being duller and longer in the style of my writing.

In the end, I feel as if both goals have ended up being somewhat pointless. It’s not clear to me any longer what good I can contribute as a public diarist. Much of what I think gets thought and expressed by someone else at a quicker pace, in a faster social media platform. More importantly, the value of my observations, whatever that might be, was secured through combining frankness and introspection, through raising rather than brutally disposing of open questions. This more than anything now seems quaintly out of place in social media. I feel as if it takes extreme curation to find pockets of social media commentary given over to skepticism and exploration, through collectively playful or passionate engagement with uncertainty and ambiguity.

More complicatedly, the more I am tied to my institutional histories and imagined as being a “responsible agent” within them, the harder it gets to talk frankly about what I see. It was comforting to think that almost no one read my blog and almost no one cared about it, in some sense. Now I’m only too aware that if I speak, even if I’m careful to abstract and synthesize what I’m observing, I can’t help but seem as if I am testifying about the much larger archive of real experiences and painful confidences I have been entrusted with. If I abstract too much, I find that friends and colleagues politely gaslight me: I can’t have seen what I think I’ve seen. But I can’t be more direct, and I don’t want to be. Trying to observe real stories and real problems with some degree of honesty can curdle into the settling of scores, and can tempt people–older white men especially–into a narrative of institutional life in which they are always the heroes of the story. Some stories and experiences explored honestly end up with everyone muddling through with good intent; others end up implicating everyone in certain kinds of bad faith or short-sightedness, including the people doing the exploring.

This brings me to the second goal: to be part of a new and more democratic public sphere. I have been for thirty years a person enthusiastic about the possibilities and often the realities of online culture. I am losing that enthusiasm rapidly. It’s not just that all the old problems are now vastly greater in scope and more ominous by far in the threat they can pose to participants in digital culture, but that there are new problems too. The threat to women, to people of color, to GLBQT people, is bigger by far, but even as someone who has all sorts of protections, I find myself unnerved by online discussion, by its volatility and speed, by the ways that groups settle on intense and combative interpretations and then amplify both. I remember only dimly that for a long time I saw myself as trying to create bridges in conversations to online conservatives. With a blessed few exceptions, those conversations mostly felt like agreeing to trust Lucy to hold the football steady one more time, like being the mark in a long confidence game whose goal was to move the Overton window. What did I think I was doing talking to David Horowitz, for example? Or writing critiques of ACTA reports as if anyone writing them cared remotely about evidence or accuracy? And yet I’m not feeling that much more comfortable about online conversation with people with whom I ostensibly agree or among whom I have allegedly built up long reservoirs of trust. That sense of trust and social groundedness felt very real as recently as five years ago, but now it feels as if the infrastructures of online life could pull any foundation into wreckage in an instant without any individual human beings meaning or wanting to have that happen.

I almost thought to critically engage a recent wave of online attacks on a course being taught by my colleague here at Swarthmore. I even tried one engagement with a real person on Twitter and for a brief moment, I thought at least the points I was making were being read and understood. But the iron curtain of a new kind of cultural formation snapped down hard within three tweets, and it was difficult for me to even grasp who I had been talking to: a provocateur? an eccentric? a true believer? The rest of the social media traffic about the issue was rank with the stink of bots and 8chan-style troublemaking. Even when it was real people talking, even if I might be able to have a meaningful conversation with them in person if I happened to be in their physical presence, nothing good could come of online engagement, and many bad things could instead happen.

So I need to think anew: what is this space for? What’s left to say? Public debate, per se, is dead. Being a diarist might not be, but I will need to find ways to undam the river of my own voice.

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12 Responses to A New Year

  1. NickS says:

    I am sorry to read this — but not completely surprised.

    I have enjoyed your blog and your writing voice for several years. I generally find your posts interesting and though-provoking. I have also noticed that it seems like the space for that sort of blogging is constricting. I hoped that it was just a sign that I, as a reader, am not finding new blogs which are interested in mulling over open-ended questions, but perhaps the interest and audience for that is shrinking.

  2. Maria says:

    I know this is not what you are requesting, but multiple times you have helped me think more deeply or from a different angle about an issue that was troubling me. I have been sorry to have less of your voice recently. So, whatever you decide, thank you.

  3. Western Dave says:

    So I lost my blogging voice for most of 2017. And then I found it. I hope that happens for you, though obviously through happier circumstances. Let’s grab a drink.

  4. I am glad to hear that you are going to make another try to talk to us.

    “Public debate, per se, is dead.” I don’t think it was ever alive. The tyranni of the world are delighted when the democrati of the world want to debate. When Huxley debated Wilberforce, I doubt any minds were changed, they may have been clarified and their arguments strengthened, but not changed.

    Debate in Congress is a joke, unless there is someone looking on who holds some sort of hammer–which almost never happens.

    When LBJ saw the horror in Alabama when the Selma to Montgomery marchers were brutally attacked, he addressed Congress and gave a wonderful speech. His audience was mostly white and government workers so they were not going to do anything, but LBJ knew they were scared. They had witnessed the outing of white supremacy and white bigotry and nobody knew what would happen next.It may well have been that Lyndon Johnson was the only white man in the room who knew what to do—and it was even more likely that he was the only white man in the room who was determined to do it. But it was certain that he was the only white man in the room who had the power of office and the force of personality to command others to do his bidding.

    The marchers in Alabama had finally sold their cause to someone who would take it up and work to make it happen.

    The moral of this story is that nothing happens this world until someone sells to someone else. I know what I want to sell, and I am selling it. What would you like to sell?

    I think one’s time is best spent trying to force changes. Not just point out that change is needed but trying to get the change made. Even if everything you are shooting for is not accomplished, here and there, from time to time, you will get something done, And in the combat you may draw an onlooker or two into the fray.

    Decide what you want to tear down, or build up, and then hit it hard and often.

    You are a great writer and thinker, don’t worry about reaction (of course that is easy for me to say, I am not a professor in a university that probably is very wary of public attention of what it judges to be the wrong kind.)

    Just this morning I read an essay by a guy named Avent about the future of AI. I wonder what you think that future is. I developed robots back in 1991, and they ran a telephone company. They did all the back office processing and led the customer service and marketing department workers through their conversations with the outside world.

    This Avent guy was talking about putting people out of work. I put my first people out of work in 1967 with some computer programs. I have been worried about AI for more than fifty years. I think what I think, and I write about what I think should be done, but I wonder what you think. What kind of society do we need and when will we need it?

    I have an opinion of what it would look like, what it would take to get in implemented, and what benefits it would provide. But when I bring it up in all kinds of places I get insults on a good day. I get banned on a bad day. So, I found out the hard way that having a good idea, which naturally I think I have, is not enough. Nobody on the Internet gives a damn about anybody’s ideas but their own.

    So, I realized that to get my ideas into action I have to do the hard work of selling them. They will never be approved by acclamation.

    But I am interested in what you think, but from your gut. No tiptoeing. I came here years ago in hopes of hearing it.

  5. There is a small number of bloggers who, when I first encounter them, I was so intrigued that I went back through their blog history and read or at least skimmed, over the course of a few weeks, almost everything they had written. You are one of those bloggers.

    I know lately I’ve disagreed with a good chunk of what you’ve said here. Not a majority of it, but a good chunk. I have been pretty confrontational, especially in my most recent comment on this blog, on your last post.

    I still believe what I do and therefore don’t apologize for what I’ve said, although I could have and should have probably reserved those thoughts for my own blog. Suffice it to say, though, I value your contributions here and like Maria above, you’ve prompted me to think about a lot of things from a different angle. At the same time, I realize the constraints you’re under (from what you’ve said here…..I don’t know you personally) and I further have a default respect for anyone who, unlike me, blogs under their own name.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Gabriel, your comments have been great! Very much what I was seeking from the beginning. No apologies necessary. It’s more the relationship between what gets said in a space like this and the vast, fast, algorithmically-mediated streams of social media discourse that worries me; the degree to which in those spaces it doesn’t matter if you are careful in a long-form essay, because all that will matter is the title or the link itself.

  7. NickS says:

    Interesting coincidence, there’s a discussion of this topic in the most recent Ezra Klein podcast (starting around 26:00, Jaron Lanier gives his broad theory about online interaction and then Ezra Klein talks about how changes in context have affected his blogging).

    I’m not entirely convinced by Lanier’s theory but it’s interesting that, while being skeptical of some of the choices that have been made in technology and social media, he gives an answer which could serve as a defense of an idealized California techno-optimism.

  8. MentalEngineer says:

    I think I’ve only commented here once before, but Gabriel’s first paragraph was exactly what I came here to say. For me, “the raising rather than brutally disposing of open questions” is why I visit your blog at least once a day, even when weeks of silence suggest there’ll be nothing to see. When a new post shows up, it’s always worth it.

    And as a young-ish proto-academic, one of the most valuable parts of this blog is precisely your struggle to get all the competing considerations you mention right. It’s both educational and remarkably affirming to see someone thoughtfully and conscientiously grappling with all the sorts of problems I find myself facing (grad students and young faculty in my discipline are quite susceptible to the fast-moving probably-bad-faith pile-ons you worry about) and contemplate facing (right now I’m not quite “the man,” but I might be very soon – how do I inhabit that position without becoming everything I hate about it). And from where I, the relatively uninformed reader, sit, you seem to do very well at all this.

    Of course, the fact that your hours of labor have such value to me shouldn’t persuade you to write or refrain from writing. But I thought you deserved to know.

  9. CarlD says:

    You do great work here. I always learn something and think more clearly for reading your posts. I think all the time about something you said awhile back, about engaging with the best version of an argument whether that’s what’s on offer from time to time or not. You’ve always done that and it’s inspiring.

    That said, my wife makes fun of me for, as she says, “listening to all the words.” The content of arguments is so rarely all or even most of what’s going on. Oh not again he’s going to tell us it’s a complex system is a good joke but it’s also right, and I wonder what it would look like if we embraced this as an analytical baseline rather than torturing ourselves with the failures of discourse to settle into tidy linearities.

    I also think all the time about your quote from Lessing, about the activist who commits suicide when she finds her ideals in the hands of human beings. That’s a game urgently worth changing.

  10. I just read your blog post and responded via Twitter (yes, I know, Twitter) in a two-tweet thread that links to a post I wrote about the unknowable online impact of the writing of humanists and another post about information asymmetry and circumspection, and not just for those of us who handle classified records and sensitive information. https://twitter.com/ArchivesMaarja/status/956106321488699392 I may work some of my response into a blog post I’m writing this week. But I did want to let you know that reading your voice here has brought me light over the years, and strength when I have been weary, more than you ever could have known as you have been writing here.

  11. Thanks for your thoughtful blogging, Dr. Burke. As a historian who also has worked on governmental assignments involving two other professions (archives and records management), I’ve found your essays about the value of evidence useful in reaching out online to information professionals. As I note in a new post at my own blog about your “A New Year” post, public engagement by historians is not without risks. https://archivalexplorations.wordpress.com/2018/01/28/the-years-teach-much-the-days-never-knew/

    As you note, writing about professional issues requires balancing candor and discretion. But in my view, worth trying–with the recognition that information and knowledge asymmetry may not always be recognized by all those with whom we engage. Thanks for your work here and elsewhere online.

  12. Brutus says:

    I’m late to the discussion but let me add my lousy 2 cents. Obviously, there are too many intertwined issues here to treat them all, but the early promise or hope of what digital communications and social networks could become was never a major theme for me. Irrational exuberance about the (social) revolution being televised, Tweeted, or otherwise fomented through social media never struck me as even remotely accurate. That’s just not how things work, either historically or incipiently. For me, it has always been about two things: slow vs. fast information and a platform of personal integrity vs. anonymous jibes, trolls, and attacks. I try to embody the former, which means I’m often late to post and not provocative enough to satisfy audiences out for blood. (My anonymity is a modest bit of insulation, which I didn’t adopt so that I could misbehave.) In contrast, the digital ethic has clearly become the latter: rushing to judgment and sour. So yeah, heavily curated is right, but that’s always been true of the information environment. Accordingly, we award our continued attention to those who earn it and begrudge our attention to those who demand it. You’ve definitely earned it, which is why I keep coming back. However, don’t mistake what you thought social media might become from what it has in fact become. A few thoughtful, worthwhile contributors continue to make their content available inside the maelstrom, not realistically expecting to solve anything but nonetheless trying to make sense of some portion of the noise and nonsense we all confront as members of society.

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